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What’s Working: Colorado Springs is the only metro area that has recovered all jobs lost in the pandemic

Statewide, 85.7% of the jobs lost during COVID are back. Plus: Wages are up, unemployment rate falls again and another look at the true unemployed.

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Colorado continues to recover jobs lost at the start of the COVID pandemic. In November, the state’s job recovery rate reached 85.7%, the 17th fastest in the nation, according to new labor department data. 

But only one metro area in the state has recovered all of its lost jobs: Colorado Springs. 

The region now has more jobs than it did in February 2020. It’s 104% recovered, Ryan Gedney, senior economist with the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment, said Friday during a news conference. He said the strong job growth came from professional and business services and trade, transportation and utilities.

Downtown Colorado Springs and Pikes Peak Friday, April 30, 2021. (Mark Reis, Special to the Colorado Sun)

Colorado lost 375,800 jobs between February and April last year, but as of November had regained 322,200. That’s the recovery rate. But it still leaves a gap of 53,600. Those are likely to return next year, he said, because our economy is strong and the current job count may be off by 20,000. That revision will be finalized in upcoming months. 

“What that really means is the gap, instead of being 53,600 payroll jobs, it’s probably close to about 35,000 payroll jobs,” Gedney said. “That said, I would expect the state to reach that February 2020 non-farm payroll level either late first quarter, or sometime in the second quarter.”

While Colorado has recovered most of the jobs lost, four states have recovered them all: Utah, with a job recovery rate at 143.6%; Idaho at 118.2%; Texas at 101.9%; and Arizona at 101.5%.

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Those states had a head start, said Chris Brown, vice president of policy and research at the Common Sense Institute, an economic think tank in Greenwood Village. 

“All four of those states were in the top 10 in terms of lowest percent of jobs lost in April 2020. Colorado ranked 24th,” Brown said. “So the fact that they now have employment levels above January 2020 is a combination of stronger job growth since the worst of the jobs losses, along with the fact that they didn’t have as large of a deficit to dig out of.”

Brown said he’s also not sure Colorado should be considered fully recovered when the missing jobs do return, even if other reports, like the Colorado Business Economic Outlook from the Leeds School of Business at the University of Colorado Boulder, predict a full recovery in 2022.

“However, after adjusting for population growth, both forecasts do not have Colorado reaching the same employment-to-population ratios as 2019,” Brown said. “Therefore, while Colorado is projected to recover lost jobs, it likely won’t make a full recovery in 2022.”

The number of Coloradans employed compared to the working-age population (people age 16 and older) was 64.7% in November, the seventh highest in the nation. In 2019, Colorado’s employment-to-population ratio was 66.9%. 

→ Regional recovery data has the Denver metro area in second place for job recovery, at 91% in November, followed by Grand Junction at 84%. Boulder, Pueblo, Greeley and Fort Collins are between 70% and 74%, according to Gedney’s analysis.

He added that Boulder and Fort Collins likely face the lag because those areas have a heavy concentration of education employment. If the schools and universities aren’t back fully, the local economies feel the impact. In Greeley, that’s impacted by the downturn in oil and gas. And Pueblo, there’s a high concentration of manufacturing and not all those jobs have returned.

Jobless rate falls to 5.1%, but who’s not counted?

If the declining unemployment rate means anything 22 months into the pandemic, it’s that fewer people are eligible for benefits. Colorado’s unemployment rate dropped about one-third of a percentage point to 5.1% in November, from 5.4% in October.

But the unemployment rate doesn’t count people who stopped looking for work or aren’t eligible for unemployment, such as contractors and gig workers. Those folks are included in the BLS Household Survey data, which counted 163,800 unemployed Coloradans in November. 

While the figure may seem high, it’s down 7,600 from October. It’s also down by 54,800 in the past year, and “nearly 60% of that decline has come over the past four months,” Gedney said.

The Ludwig Institute for Shared Economic Prosperity points out the nation’s unemployment rate doesn’t count the underemployed. It came up with its own measure and calls it the TRU rate. For November 2021, that was 23.6%, compared to the U.S. rate of 4.2%. (Screenshot)

Economic researcher Ludwig Institute for Shared Economic Prosperity has its own take on the “true rate of unemployment.” In a new report, the organization said November’s true rate was 23.6% in the U.S., or far higher than the nation’s 4.2% jobless rate for the same month.

True unemployment is even higher among Black and Hispanic people, at 26.9% and 28.5%, respectively, compared with 21.7% for white workers. And females fare worse than men, with true rates of 28.8% versus 18.8%. State data was not available.

The good news is that rates improved from last year, so “we are seriously moving in the right direction for the first time in a long time,” organization founder Gene Ludwig, a former U.S. Comptroller of Currency, said in a statement. The latest data, however, points to a stalled market for living-wage jobs and it’ll take “good economic policy (and) focusing on the creation of well-paying jobs” to move to a lower true rate.

Speaking of wages…

Other new labor data showed that the average hourly pay in Colorado rose nearly $2 in the past year to $33.05 an hour. 

If that seems like a lot, or not much, the hourly figure comes from the wide variety of occupations. 

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Recent wage data at a city level isn’t available yet, but May 2020 data had Boulder, for example, paying computer hardware engineers an average of $58.65 an hour while lifeguards in town made $13.60. Average pay in Pueblo was around $23.63 an hour with top-paying jobs at $41.04 for health care practitioners and the lowest wage earners, such as food preparers, at $13.44. 

With Colorado’s wage transparency law, it’s easier to keep track of what jobs pay. And workers are increasingly open to discussing what they make, particularly online.

→ Spotted on Reddit: What’s your job and how much do you get paid? >> DENVER, BOULDER, NATION

→ INCOMING: Another spot for finding out wages? The state’s Office of Economic Development and International Trade. The department oversees incentive programs to lure companies to Colorado. One of the latest is Genapsys, which develops technology for genomic sequencing. It’s opening a second location in Westminster and plans to hire 240 people. Average wage? $111,369. If Genapsys is successful in creating that many new jobs at those wages, they would get a $4.5 million tax credit. >> OPENINGS

What’s up in January? Unemployment insurance premiums.

This shouldn’t be a surprise to any employer who made it through the Great Recession and watched the state’s unemployment fund run dry: Unemployment insurance premiums are going up in January. But not in the same way they did before.

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A bill passed last year postponed until 2023 an extra fee called the solvency surcharge, which usually starts after the unemployment trust fund falls below a certain level. At zero percent full, plus a $1 billion in debt via a federal loan, the state’s trust fund now needs money. Employers will be charged higher rates on a larger portion of worker’s wages. But other fees won’t start until 2023. 

If you’re an employer, you should have received the notification of the increase from the labor department. And it should tell you how high or low your “experience rating” is. The higher the rating, the lower the rate. If you know what your rating is, find it in the chart below to get a sense of what your future fees may look like: 

To understand the complexity of why the trust fund needs to be refilled, read the story: Colorado needs to refill its empty unemployment fund. Here’s how that will impact employers, workers


Stay safe this holiday. If you need help with housing, food and other necessities, check out my column from last Christmas that lists resources available in Colorado. Hang in there everyone and What’s Working will be back in the new year. ~tamara


What’s Working is a Colorado Sun column for readers navigating pandemic employment. Read the archive and don’t miss the next one. Get this free newsletter delivered to your inbox by signing up at coloradosun.com/getww.

MORE: Read stories on Colorado jobs and unemployment