Summit County businesses struggle with staffing as unemployment rate drops to 2.9%
Owners cite high cost of living and lack of workforce housing as biggest hiring challenges
Summit County’s unemployment rate fell to pre-pandemic levels at the end of 2021, but local business owners continue to find themselves scrambling to hire workers.
As of December, the county had an unemployment rate of 2.9%, according to the monthly Colorado Department of Labor report. The rate is the lowest it’s been since March 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic caused unemployment to jump from 2.7% to 26.2%.
The county has the lowest unemployment rates of the mountain resort areas for both November and December. Around 3.5% of Summit County residents were unemployed in November. Eagle, Pitkin, Routt and Grand counties experienced rates ranging from 3% to almost 5% in December.
The local unemployment rate also falls below state and national averages. In November, Colorado’s unemployment rate was 5.1%, while 4.2% of citizens nationwide were unemployed. In December, those numbers dropped to 4.8% for Colorado and 3.9% for the U.S.
While lower unemployment is a good sign for workers, a high cost of living means business owners are struggling to fill open positions. As of Saturday, Feb. 5, Summit County had 1,512 available job postings, according to the department of labor’s website.
The situation leaves many business owners and managers struggling to keep operations running while workers turn down jobs because of high housing costs. Rob Corujo, owner of Breckenridge Ale House and Pizza, believes he’s only been able to hire employees recently because he got lucky.
His recent hires came to the restaurant because they knew someone else who worked there or happened to meet Corujo out in public and asked if he had any openings.
“The whole putting an ad out, like a Facebook ad or Craigslist ad, I’ve gotten zero responses out of that,” Corujo said.
The restaurant owner has only been able to fully staff his restaurant in recent months. Before then, he was constantly battling with the worker shortage as potential employees struggled to find housing and find ways around Summit’s high cost of living.
“The biggest problem around here is the housing situation,” Corujo said. “If people can’t live here or live nearby, you’re not going to have the employees. That’s the biggest hurdle.”
Other restaurant owners have had to get creative to hire staff and convince them to stay. Owners of restaurants like Timberline Craft Kitchen and Cocktails, Sauce on the Blue, Bread + Salt and Bagailis have purchased properties that they rent out to employees.
Tanecia Spagnolia, who owns Timberline, said she rents out a two-bedroom condo and a five-bedroom single-family home to her employees. She’s ultimately losing money on the deal, but it allows her to keep Timberline up and running as staffing shortages persist.
“It’s helped us keep people that have lost housing as well as bring new people from out of the county, from either out of state or Denver, because we have housing available for them to move here, too,” Spagnolia said.
Just providing housing isn’t always enough, however. Spagnolia has also had to increase her wages to keep employees working at Timberline. She said she often struggles with finding employees who are prepared for the cost of living in Summit County.
Even with the challenges, some business owners are optimistic that things are improving. Spagnolia said she’s starting to receive more applications and interest in jobs. Tim Applegate, owner of Sauce on the Blue in Silverthorne, said he’s been able to maintain a full staff in recent months.
While his ability to provide housing for employees helps the situation, Applegate believes that loosened COVID-19 restrictions have also contributed to more people entering the service industry.
“We’re not having the tremendous problem we were having a year ago,” Applegate said.
Spagnolia said she’d like to see the town councils and county commissioners come up with solutions that support workers, like broadening child care options and improving the housing situation.
“It’s definitely better than it was last summer, but we still have a long way to go to support the workforce and the people that live and work here,” she said.
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