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A now-hiring sign in the window of a Chipotle Mexican Grill in Cherry Creek in September 2021 advertised a starting wage of $16 an hour and several benefits. (Tamara Chuang, The Colorado Sun)

Colorado’s unemployment rate declined to 4.8%, the lowest since the start of the pandemic. A lot of new economic data poured in Friday to give us a better sense of how the state’s recovery is going. 

But first, let’s talk about a livable wage, which seems like a fair starting point for any worker who has settled into an occupation and plans to stick with it in the near future. 

So, what is a livable wage anyway?

It’s how much someone needs to earn “to support his or herself and their family,” according to the Living Wage calculator from Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Amy K. Glasmeier. It should include food, child care, health insurance, housing, transportation, mobile service and internet, plus a few other necessities.

For a single person in Denver, MIT’s calculator puts that wage at $17.40 an hour in 2020 dollars. Add a child and the amount jumps to $36.28. The living wage for an individual changes by year and region. In Mesa County, a living wage was $14.56, Pueblo was at $13.99 and Yuma County at $13.33.

The Family Budget Calculator from the Economic Policy Institute uses data to find a family’s budget — which includes paying for housing, food, insurance, transportation, child care and other necessities — and estimates what income is needed to pay for it based on costs of any given region in the U.S. This is EPI’s calculation for the Denver metro area compared to the counties of Mesa and Pueblo. (Economic Policy Institute)

But others interpret it differently. The nonprofit think tank Economic Policy Institute has its own “Family Budget Calculator.” And for an individual in Denver, the income needed for a “modest yet adequate standard of living” is $41,200 a year, or $19.81 an hour. It drops to $33,000 to $36,000 in Pueblo, Yuma and Mesa counties. Budget numbers are based on 2017 dollars, so it’s already out of date.

Over at Prosper Co., which is part of the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce, the “scrape by” minimum is $21.63 an hour or $45,000 annually for metro-area workers. The organization, however, said a more equitable wage is closer to the city’s annual average, which was $68,357 two years ago.

And if you ask both sides in the tentatively resolved King Soopers and Local 7 union labor dispute, the answers are very different. King Soopers even put the comparison into a graphic earlier in the week: 

King Soopers compared its proposed wage for grocery store checker with five years of experience versus the union’s proposal. (Screenshot)

That’s an annual difference of roughly $10,000 a year, or $5 an hour, for a checker with five years of experience. Both, however, agreed on a starting wage of $16 an hour. Details on the new contract for Denver-area workers won’t be released until after union members vote on it Monday. It’s likely somewhere in the middle of the two proposals.

“More often than less, one can define livable wage as a wage that allows you to live in Denver, a wage high enough where you do not need to have multiple jobs to pay rent, pay food, clothing, insurance, etc.,” said Alex Padilla, an economics professor at Metropolitan State University of Denver. “Ultimately, livable wage means a wage that allows you to live in the place you want to live given the costs of living of that place.” 

Back in 1938, when the federal minimum wage was introduced (at 25 cents an hour!), it was considered a livable wage, said David Cooper, director of economic analysis and research network at Economic Policy Institute.

“But over time, it became clear that it wasn’t. So it was updated,” Cooper said. “But it hasn’t been updated much in the last three decades.”

The federal minimum wage is $7.25 an hour, which was last updated in 2009. Colorado’s hourly minimum wage increased Jan. 1 to $12.56 and Denver’s is now at $15.83. Advocates have been pushing for a $15 federal minimum for years and when that debate returns, the number may be even higher.

“I think the general (idea) of a livable wage would be the wage required for someone to be able to live with dignity to meet all their needs, and to be financially stable,” Cooper said. “What we’re describing as modest but adequate is you’re able to pay all those bills but you don’t have any savings leftover.”

Share your thoughts on livable wages:

Share your thoughts on what is a livable wage in Colorado by filling out the survey at

→ Ivy League business students out of touch? Nina Strohminger, a professor at Wharton, the business school at University of Pennsylvania, asked students what they thought the average American makes per year and 25% said “over six figures,” she said on Twitter. One thought it was $800,000. The real number, she added, is $45,000. A Washington Post story about her Twitter comment noted that the Social Security Administration lists average annual wages in the U.S. at $53,383. After her musings on Twitter were retweeted or liked more than 150,000 times within 15 hours, she added “Oh good, I went viral.” >> TWEET, STORY

→ Livable wage wish — Meanwhile, a survey by financial services website Personal Capital reports that Americans feel they need to make $122,000 to feel secure and financially healthy. >> CNBC

→ Colorado’s hourly pay increases — Colorado’s average hourly earnings reached $33.28 in December, according to the latest BLS business establishment survey. That’s up from $31.20 a year ago. It’s also nearly $2 more than the nation’s average of $31.31.

Colorado recovers 89% of jobs lost in pandemic

The state continues to add more jobs each month to make up for what was lost at the start of the pandemic. In December, the number grew by 18,000 plus November data was revised showing that we gained more jobs then initially announced. 

That puts Colorado at an 89% recovery rate in regaining the 375,000 jobs lost in March and April 2020. By comparison, the U.S. has recovered 84% of jobs lost in the early pandemic.

That helped improve the state’s unemployment rate to 4.8%, the lowest since the pandemic first disrupted lives in the spring of 2020. While we’re not back to the pre-pandemic low of 2.8% in February 2020 and we’re not near the nation’s 3.9% in December, there are more people in the state’s workforce than ever before, said Ryan Gedney, a senior economist at the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment. 

December labor participation rates reached 68.3% or 3,208,400. This includes people who work, are collecting unemployment or looking for work. The rate was 68.7% in February 2020.

“The labor force did hit 3.2 million for the first time in its history for Colorado,” Gedney said at a news conference Friday. “While the labor force participation rate is slightly lower, I do think it’s encouraging that we continue to see monthly growth in those labor force totals. And again, that will also help, as people enter the labor force, employers fill those needed job openings.” 

Some regions are recovering faster than others. Notably, Colorado Springs now has more jobs than it did in February 2020. Here’s where the metro areas are at in terms of job recovery: 

  • Colorado Springs, 113%
  • Denver, 93%
  • Grand Junction, 90%
  • Fort Collins, 82%
  • Boulder, 79%
  • Pueblo, 77
  • Greeley, 63%
  • 47 non-metro counties: 75%

“A lot of what is causing Greeley to lag is that area’s high concentration of oil and gas, which has yet to recover relative to other industries in the state,” Gedney said.

Other economic indicators:

  • Pueblo and Huerfano counties had the highest December unemployment rates of 6.4% and 6.3% respectively.
  • 29 counties had December unemployment rates below the U.S.’s non-seasonally adjusted rate of 3.7%
  • Construction was the only sector that experienced job losses in December from a year earlier, though “it’s fairly small at 600 jobs,” Gedney said.
  • There are still 154,300 people who are unemployed in Colorado, according to the BLS household survey, which counts more than just folks collecting unemployment. The number is up from the 83,000 average before the pandemic, but is down about 41,000 people in the last five months.
  • As of Jan. 8, there were 20,021 Coloradans collecting unemployment, or about 7.6% higher than the weekly average in 2019. >> SEE DATA

Union membership declines again but support grows

As mentioned last week in this column, the public is more favorable towards unions than in the past with 68% of Americans in a Gallup poll saying they approve of unions — the highest rate since 1965. Membership in labor unions, though, was sharply down from a few decades ago. 

On Thursday, the Bureau of Labor Statistics released 2021 union data that showed the numbers dropped again, down 3.9% compared to 2019. Last year, union membership declined by 241,000 workers to 14 million people, or 10.8% of all folks employed. In 1983, the first year that comparable data was collected, union membership was at 17.7 million workers, or 20.1% of all those employed.

Colorado also experienced a loss of union members, and dramatically so in the pandemic. Since 2019, union membership fell 30.38% to 165,000 members. 

 But the declines don’t take away from public sentiment that favors unions or the attempts to organize at Starbucks and Amazon or the large number of labor actions nationwide, Heidi Shierholz, president of the nonprofit think tank Economic Policy Institute, said during a news conference on the new BLS data. They show “workers want and value unions.” 

“Workers have basically two sources of power with respect to their employer. They have a union or the implicit threat that they can quit their job and take another job,” Shierholz said. “And that means that that implicit threat that workers could quit and take another job is very real right now, and that means workers have more power. But, and this is key, these dynamics are unlikely to continue once the pandemic is behind us. For lasting worker power, for lasting strong wage growth and decent working conditions going forward, working people absolutely have to be able to join unions.” 

A few policies proposed include the Protecting the Right to Organize Act or the Public Service Freedom to Negotiate Act at the national level. In Colorado, a bill in the works would grant more public employees the right to unionize.

“And the fact that unionization nevertheless declined in 2021 is just a glaring testament to how easy it is for employers who oppose unions to exploit our weak, outdated labor laws to thwart workers’ attempts at organizing,” Shierholz said.

→ Read about the local effort to give more Colorado public employees the right to unionize in a story by my colleague Thy Vo. >> STORY

After nine days of picketing in front of King Soopers stores, employees who are members of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 7 ended their strike on Jan. 21. The union and King Soopers said they reached a tentative deal that union members must still ratify. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun)

→ King Soopers workers end strike — After what appeared to be fruitless negotiations Thursday evening, King Soopers and United Food and Commercial Workers Local 7 announced a tentative agreement before 6 a.m. on Friday. Contract details will be shared by the union after members vote to ratify the new contract on Monday. >> STORY

$3,000 for restaurants that take on apprentices 

Restaurant staffing shortages were an industry issue before the pandemic and continue to be. So after a successful trial run, the Colorado Restaurant Foundation is expanding an apprenticeship program that provides training to students and extra help for restaurants. 

The Restaurant Youth Registered Apprenticeship, or RYRA, launched with a $5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Labor. Colorado was one of four states participating through the Colorado Restaurant Foundation. It placed the first dozen students with restaurants in August, including Chook Charcoal Chicken in Denver.

Daniela Fernandez became an apprentice at Chook Charcoal Chicken in Denver last summer as part of the Colorado Restaurant Foundation’s Restaurant Youth Registered Apprenticeship. Restaurants get extra help and students get trained as line cooks or restaurant managers. (Provided by the Colorado Restaurant Foundation)

To speed up growth, the foundation is awarding $3,000 grants to restaurants that take on an apprentice. Restaurants don’t have to be a member of the state restaurant association and the program is open to existing student workers who are interested in a career. Applications are being accepted until March 1.

“Our overall goal for this year is to have 270 apprentices placed,” said Mark Antonation, a spokesman for the Colorado Restaurant Foundation. Two days after announcing the $3,000 bonus, 115 restaurants expressed interest. 

Apprenticeship positions for students between 17 to 24 are available as line cooks and restaurant management trainees. While the employer must pay regular wages to the apprentice, the program will cover the cost of training, such as a ServSafe Manager certification, which normally runs $179.

“People may have found reasons to not work in the restaurant industry over the past two years, and are looking elsewhere for jobs. We want to give them this option and say not only can you get a running start through RYRA, but by getting set up early, you’ll be able to advance quicker, you can make more money and you’ll know more about the industry so you can kind of pick and choose where you want to work,” Antonation said. “It’s a way to show young people that this is a viable career.

With the King Soopers strike over, we’ll be getting back to regular job trends and exploring the data on who’s getting hired, fired or just plain quitting. If you haven’t shared your job situation — especially if you’ve quit your job — you can do so at Stay warm! ~ tamara

What’s Working is a Colorado Sun column for readers navigating today’s economy. Read the archive, send a message and don’t miss the next one. Get this free newsletter in your inbox by signing up at

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Tamara Chuang writes about Colorado business and the local economy for The Colorado Sun, which she cofounded in 2018 with a mission to make sure quality local journalism is a sustainable business. Her focus on the economy during the pandemic...