Lowest jobless rate in Colorado plagues business in Summit County | SummitDaily.com

Lowest jobless rate in Colorado plagues business in Summit County

Help wanted signs posted on businesses along Main Street, November 2018 in Breckenridge. A special meeting on Tuesday, Sept. 3, to discuss placing an advisory question about minimum wage on this year's ballot.
Summit Daily file photo

Extremely low unemployment rates might sound like a good thing, but it continues to create major problems in Summit County and not just among the business community.

At a scant 1.6% in March, Summit County had the lowest unemployment rate in Colorado. That figure surpassed all comparable mountain communities, and Ryan Gedney, a senior economist for the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment, wouldn’t be surprised if Summit had the lowest, or one of the lowest, instances of joblessness in the nation.

According to the Department of Labor and Employment, there were 24,247 people employed in Summit County in March, opposed to only 390 unemployed. That put Summit close to the county’s all-time low of 1.4% unemployment, though Gedney noted that 1.4% and 1.6% jobless rates “are practically the same” as far as their effect on the economy goes.

“Really, anyone who wants a job (over the peak ski season) can probably get a job there,” Gedney said while he perused Summit County’s jobless figures and surmised that local employers are “probably desperate to fill positions” during the height of winter tourism.

He won’t get any argument from Judi LaPoint, executive director of the Summit Chamber of Commerce, who frequently sees these businesses having to make hard decisions because they simply don’t have the workers to support business operations.

“At that level, anyone who is employable is employed,” said LaPoint, as she likened the county’s 1.6% unemployment rate to zero percent unemployment.

Running March’s numbers back to 2014, it’s not unusual for Summit to post the lowest unemployment rate in the state during the winter months, as nearby ski resorts and local businesses struggle to stay fully staffed and work is readily available, Gedney said.

“Oh gosh, yes,” LaPoint agreed. “One of the things (the Chamber does) for our members is we have a job posting site so people can log in and post their jobs, and it’s just amazing to me how difficult it has been to fill so many of these positions.”

These aren’t just entry-level jobs, she added, but everything from front-line workers making starting wages to higher-paying careers that require advanced degrees.

In fact, the county has either had the state’s lowest rate or the second-lowest unemployment rate every single March dating back to March 2014, when Summit was at 3.4% unemployment.

Looking at the data, joblessness typically ticks up across Summit in the spring, when the ski resorts start to close and labor isn’t quite so scarce. For example, the county’s jobless rate was 3% last May, which had Summit tied for 37th in the state.

But in the two months preceding May 2018, Summit was at 1.7 percent unemployment for both months (March and April 2018), which tied for second and third in the state at the time.

“So there is this ebb and flow as we move out of ski season,” Gedney said.

However, there might be too much ebb and not enough flow, if you ask local business leaders. Anecdotally, LaPoint said she knows a woman who owns a local restaurant and had to cut back its hours because it simply doesn’t have enough employees to cover all the shifts.

LaPoint said this kind of scenario, where businesses are perennially short-staffed, often leads to a lower quality of service, in addition to earlier closings and later openings. Businesses simply have to make decisions based on staffing, and that affects more than the business owners.

“It’s a big impact to not only the business owners but also our visitors and locals,” LaPoint warned, explaining that the quality of services suffer across the board, not just for the out-of-towners.

She said a lack of housing is one of the biggest contributors to the workforce shortage, which is also making it extremely hard for employers to retain workers, as LaPoint knows of some people that will get a job and then decide one day not to show up anymore because that person can simply land another one.

It should be noted that none of the aforementioned jobless rates were seasonally adjusted, which removes predictable fluctuations by the season to better track trends in the workforce over time.

Comparing the county’s unemployment rate to state average, Colorado was at 3% unemployment in March based on figures that weren’t seasonally adjusted. With the adjustments, Colorado was at 3.5%.

Overall, Colorado has a comparatively low jobless rate with the state being tied for 20th lowest instance of joblessness in the nation. That rank has slipped lately, Gedney said, but that isn’t so much a reflection of rising unemployment in Colorado as it is a signal of falling unemployment across the U.S.

“It’s not really Colorado is getting worse,” he said, “but everyone is catching up to us.”

More unlikely, however, is that the nation will catch up to Summit County, especially during the winter.

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