Summit County’s low unemployment rate of nearly 4% makes it more difficult for businesses to staff up during the holiday season |

Summit County’s low unemployment rate of nearly 4% makes it more difficult for businesses to staff up during the holiday season

Summit Chamber of Commerce executive director believes unemployment rate accounts for overqualified individuals

Many stores and local retailers are facing labor challenges, such as the Columbia Factory Store in the Outlets at Silverthorne, pictured here on Oct. 31, 2019. Many are citing the county’s low unemployment rate and a lack of affordable housing as contributing factors to the challenges.
Liz Copan/Summit Daily News archive

Many Summit County business owners have struggled to staff up throughout the better half of 2021. Posting openings on job sites like Indeed, spreading the word on social media and relying on word-of-mouth have reaped few applications. For the local retail industry, the holiday shopping frenzy isn’t making the situation better.

Much of this has to do with housing. In June, Sandy Struve — who owns multiple Breckenridge shops including The Christmas Store, Mountain Tees and Cabin Fever — said she rents out a property in Breckenridge that she subsidizes so two of her full-time employees have stable living quarters. The owners of Bread + Salt and Bagalis also provide limited housing to a few staff members, too.

But other small business owners and managers don’t have this luxury. Mary Anderson, store manager of the Columbia Factory Store and co-owner of the Summit Locals Art Market, said this is one of the biggest reasons why she currently doesn’t have full staff at Columbia.

“I really believe that the lack of housing is a huge issue for me,” Anderson said. “We’ve had a few applicants that we were ready to hire, but they couldn’t find a place to live so they had to cancel.”

The lack of affordable and attainable housing, plus the county’s low unemployment rate of nearly 4%, has been causing issues for local business operators for months now. But as Blair McGary, the executive director of the Summit Chamber of Commerce, likes to point out, some of the issues causing this severe labor shortage happened quickly after the pandemic’s onset.

“I think we know that 25% of our workforce left the community over the summer and fall of 2020, so with capacity restrictions and things, people weren’t too overly concerned,” McGary said. “I don’t think it’s changed that much since the capacity restrictions have been lifted. I think that staffing is still a challenge for many businesses — I think restaurants and retail in particular.”

In fact, McGary said she thinks the county’s 4% unemployment rate has a story of its own.

“We’ve got a small unemployment rate with a number of open jobs,” McGary said. “That’s not a model that you want or need in your community, and it means that a lot of workers here are overqualified, probably, for some of the jobs that are available. So it’s a pretty unhealthy situation that we find ourselves in when it comes to the job market.”

Anderson said she’s currently down about 10 positions — it takes roughly 30 people to operate the Columbia store easily — and a lot of her team members are working overtime to make up for it.

“We’re constantly talking to everybody about hours, but honestly everyone’s working more than they want to,” Anderson said. “I have an awesome crew so they’ve been great at helping where the help is needed.”

According to the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment’s website, there were 1,522 job openings in the county as of Dec. 9. It reported that the average weekly wage for Summit County is $906, and that some of the fastest growing occupations in the state are fast food and counter workers, retail salespersons, cashiers, servers and customer service representatives.

All of these positions are typical in a hospitality-focused community, but McGary believes that the local economy would be much stronger if the community could attract higher-paying jobs and other industries.

“I think what needs to happen is, rather than look at the success of the sales tax dollars, we need to look at the success of the overall community,” McGary said. “We know that 70% of your economy relying on one industry creates a negative situation for the community, so I think more the conversation is how do we create opportunities for higher wages in our community by attracting other industries that continue to complement our foothold in the strong tourism base that we have.”

McGary said the chamber is working on a number of programs to help businesses survive in this current climate. One is collaborating with Peak Health Alliance to spread the word about its individual coverage health reimbursement arrangement. The program encourages businesses to provide employees with an allowance that workers can use on a health insurance plan of their choice. McGary said the program saves small companies money while also providing a highly valued benefit to employees.

The chamber is also launching its next installment of its Summit Biz Bootcamp program in January. Next year, McGary said the chamber plans to roll out a few programs that focus on long-term workforce development, too.

The unemployment rate in Summit County and other resort communities shot up in March 2020 and has slowly declined since then. Currently, the county has a low unemployment rate of nearly 4%.
Nicole Miller/Summit Daily News

Support Local Journalism

Support Local Journalism

As a Summit Daily News reader, you make our work possible.

Now more than ever, your financial support is critical to help us keep our communities informed about the evolving coronavirus pandemic and the impact it is having on our residents and businesses. Every contribution, no matter the size, will make a difference.

Your donation will be used exclusively to support quality, local journalism.