Summit County’s unemployment rate hits an all-time low, vexing businesses struggling to hire

County's jobless rate near historic lows at 2.1 percent

Campaign signs are falling fast after Tuesday’s 2018 midterm elections, but another commonly posted sign across Summit County looks like it’s here to stay for much longer: Help Wanted.

The latest unemployment figures from the Frisco Workforce Center, an organization managed through the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment that’s devoted to helping people find work across the county, have Summit’s jobless rate at 2.1 percent, near historic lows. The all-time low for September came last year at 1.9 percent.

That’s almost two full points below the national jobless rate (3.7 percent) and over one point below the state’s jobless rate (3.1 percent), both of which have been referenced as indicators of a strong economy. In Summit, however, the low jobless rate remains a cause for concern.

Generally speaking, a 3-4 percent unemployment rate is considered a healthy target by policymakers.

When the jobless rate goes too much higher than that, it can stress not only individuals looking for work, but the economy as a whole. High unemployment is often associated with declining living standards, reduced consumer spending and rising debt.

When the rate drops too low, that also creates problems for the economy, as local businesses start running the risk of having their workers come into the bosses’ offices demanding hefty raises — and getting them — or threatening to leave for greener pastures.

Navigating the shortage of local workers is nothing new for many Summit County businesses, some of which have “Now Hiring” and “Help Wanted” signs hanging in their windows almost year-round.

Many of these local businesses have resorted to offering incentives for new hires, such as longevity bonuses in as little as three months or higher-than-normal pay. Others have moved to providing employee housing or even enlisting foreign worker visas just to be fully staffed.

At the Walmart in Frisco, a sign on the entryway advertises the store’s need for cashiers, sales floor associates and second-shift stockers with wages starting at $12.40 an hour, plus an additional $1.50 an hour during the winter season.

Further down, Walmart’s door sign advertises paying the store’s overnight stockers and maintenance workers a starting wage of $14.40 an hour, plus the additional $1.50 seasonal hourly hike, well above the retailer’s $11 starting pay for hourly employees after announcing it was increasing wages earlier this year.

In the same shopping center, the Mexican food restaurant Hacienda Real is looking for wait staff.

The owner and manager of the restaurant, Luis Flores, said he has been doing business in the county for almost 17 years now. While staying fully staffed has always been a struggle, it’s gotten much worse the last couple years.

“It’s hard to hire cooks and dishwashers for the season,” Flores said. For the 2018-19 ski season, he’ll need three hostesses, nine servers, three bussers, five cooks, a prepcook and three dishwashers to keep service flowing smoothly.

One of the biggest strains on the local workforce has to be Summit’s high cost of housing, said Michel Infante, family support program manager for the Family Intercultural Resource Center, where they see the breadth of poverty in Summit County firsthand.

Infante said he has noticed that many of the people coming to FIRC work in the service industry, be it in housekeeping, construction, fast-food restaurants or a host of other service-related jobs.

At FIRC, they know that while many jobs are available in Summit, the hourly rates don’t always cover the cost of living here, specifically for housing. Infante said that’s one of the single biggest reasons the labor market is so tight.

“A lot of times we find that our families are paying over 50 percent of their incomes toward housing, and that is one of the struggles,” he said.

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