Summit’s unemployment rate rose in December, but employees are needed as capacity increases

A “help wanted” sign is posted outside Silverheels Bar and Grill and Kemosabe Sushi restaurants in Frisco on Saturday, Feb. 13.
Photo by Liz Copan / Studio Copan

Recently released numbers show an increase in the county’s unemployment rate in December, when the county was restricted to level red on the COVID-19 dial. But heading into March, and down to level yellow on the dial, Summit County employers say they need more employees.

According to the Colorado Department of Labor and Unemployment, the unemployment rate in Summit County rose by 1% from November to December last year. The unemployment rate was 7.8% by the end of December, with 1,723 people unemployed. In November, 1,316 people were reported unemployed.

A chart shows the unemployment rate throughout 2020 in Summit, Eagle, Pitkin, Routt and Grand counties.

Danielle McQueen, grant and evaluation manager at the Family and Intercultural Resource Center, said the center has been hearing contradictory information from people applying for rental assistance, the majority of whom are in the service industry.

“The data that I’m seeing shows that they have work, but they just do not have enough income to afford their basic needs,” McQueen said.

Among Summit County residents who received rental assistance since Dec. 3, about 48% said they couldn’t afford their basic needs, according to a survey sent out by the resource center. Of the 157 respondents, 45% said they could afford basic needs but couldn’t save money, and only 7% said they were in a stable enough economic situation to save money. As for people’s stress level, 20% reported that their stress level was significant, 51% said that they go between feeling OK and not OK, and 29% said they were stable.

However, the demand for the center’s rental assistance seems to be leveling off. McQueen explained in an email that 575 households were supported with rental assistance in December, which is nearly five times a typical year’s worth of assistance. While February was still busy compared with a normal year, there were only 136 requests for rental assistance. McQueen said that of the families using the center’s Family Support Program, they are short about $500 per month on average for their overall budgets.

“A lot of folks, if they couldn’t access rental assistance … I don’t know what they would have to do, but they wouldn’t be able to pay their rent … because a $500 budget deficit is huge. We’re also seeing that since June 1, about one in five families who need child care don’t have it,” McQueen said, adding that this suggests that a parent is having to stay home with children.

TJ Messerschmitt, president of the Breckenridge Restaurant Association and owner of both Fatty’s Pizzeria and Relish, said he was surprised that unemployment jumped up a percent because most restaurants in the area are short-staffed and looking to hire more employees.

“There are a few more people in town that are looking for jobs, but we still don’t have that line-level cook or that line-level employee in town,” Messerschmitt said. “That’s where we’re missing. We have some people coming in looking for serving positions — not as many as we’ve had in previous situations — but I’ve heard from a lot of people if we were to open up (restaurant capacity) … they don’t know if they could open to a higher percent because they don’t know if they have staffing.”

The notion that restaurateurs are worried about a lack of staff as capacity increases is not new, and the concern was shared among owners of 5-Star Certified Businesses when they moved into level yellow in February.

Lately, restaurant staffers have been able to work more hours as Breckenridge has been busy, Messerschmitt said. He said that at his restaurants, full-time staff are able to get as many hours as they need, but that newer, part-time staff won’t be able to get the hours they want until restaurants can open up more seats.

Messerschmitt noted that regardless of capacity restrictions, not much will change if tables have to remain 6 feet apart. He said Relish gained only two tables when it moved from 25% to 50% capacity. Messerschmitt added that there isn’t enough staff in town currently to support restaurants if the town were to open to full capacity.

Blair McGary, executive director of the Summit Chamber of Commerce, said that as the county moved from level red into levels orange and yellow around the holidays, people that were employed in service industry establishments were overworked during the transition. Today, she said the biggest issue in the industry is conflicts between customers and staff enforcing restrictions, such as 5 Star Certified Restaurants having to solicit COVID-19 information before guests can sit down.

“You’ve got front-line workers having these conversations that are quickly turning confrontational, and that’s exhausting,” McGary said. “It’s been a long year for everyone, and a lot of these front-line workers have done everything they can to make it this far. And then to be abused by the visitors is just devastating.”

McGary echoed Messerschmitt’s sentiment that although restaurants are allowed to open at 50% capacity, table-spacing requirements have often prohibited them from reaching that level. Overall, she said that current restrictions aren’t a sustainable model for staff or restaurants, and noted that while there have been subsidies available, businesses owners don’t want to live on those.

“Businesses that were struggling pre-pandemic to staff — child care, transportation come to mind — they’re continuing to have trouble staffing those,” McGary said. “There were some of these challenges before the pandemic that we didn’t solve, and they’ve just been compounded.”

McGary said that businesses and staff are simply waiting for the tide to turn and are cautiously optimistic about the summer.

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