Pitkin County unemployment better but still high and concern for local officials | AspenTimes.com

Pitkin County unemployment better but still high and concern for local officials

Diners interact with a waitress at Public House on Sunday, Sept. 6, 2020, in downtown Aspen. (Photo by Austin Colbert/The Aspen Times)
Austin Colbert/The Aspen Times

While Pitkin County’s unemployment rate continues to fall, the latest numbers for July show that it remains more than triple the average from a year ago, officials said late last week.

And with offseason and an uncertain winter economy looming, the county’s employment outlook for the near future is concerning, said Nan Sundeen, Pitkin County’s health and human services director.

“Pitkin County still has some of the highest unemployment in the state,” she said. “It concerns me that we have high unemployment in July, which is high season. So I think the number will jump dramatically again.”

Pitkin County’s unemployment rate was 23% in April, 20% in May and 16% in June, said Jessica Valand, the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment’s regional director for workforce development. In July, that number fell to 9.4%, she said.

The July number is on par with other unemployment numbers from nearby counties with ski resort-based economies, including Summit County at 10.1% and Eagle County at 9.4%, according to state unemployment statistics. Garfield County’s unemployment rate for July was 6.2%.

“What we’ve observed is that unemployment was high and remained higher in counties with tourism-based economies,” Valand said in an interview last week.

She also said she expects Pitkin County’s unemployment numbers to rise again in the fall offseason as usually happens with the seasonal job market.

Overall, Colorado’s unemployment rate for July was 7.4%, while the national average for July was far higher at 10.2%, according to state statistics. (Updated statistics released Friday show the national unemployment rate dropped to 8.4% for August.)

Pitkin County’s unemployment rate generally hovers between 2% and 3%, Sundeen said. Colorado was experiencing record low unemployment before the pandemic hit, with the rate hovering between 2% and 3%, Valand said.

The main concern is that many of the jobs eliminated during the coronavirus pandemic won’t return, Valand and Sundeen said.

“What we know from the 2008 recession is that once businesses start to downsize, they realize they can get by with less people.” Sundeen said.

For example, a Harvard economist has predicted that 42% of jobs eliminated by the pandemic will not return, Valand said.

The ongoing unemployment problem has caused a shift in direction for Pitkin County. Initially, during the first months of the virus, the county handed out more than $1 million in emergency assistance to people who had lost jobs.

Now, however, the health and human services department is focusing on getting people who continue to be unemployed signed up for Medicaid and state food assistance programs, Sundeen said.

Other area nonprofits, like Aspen Family Connections and Catholic Charities, are now taking the lead in helping people who have lost jobs, with the financial assistance provided by the Aspen Community Foundation, she said.

Aspen Family Connections, a school resource center headquartered at the Aspen School District, helps families with children gain emergency cash assistance for bills or child care and also provides case management, director Katherine Sand said.

“I believe a significant portion of the people here are struggling,” she said. “There’s such a degree of uncertainty about the upcoming winter.”

Aspen Family Connections currently provides varying degrees of support to about 150 families. That can come in the form of weekly consultations about financial and debt management or more pressing issues like help with utility bills, she said.

The group also spearheads a weekly distribution of food through the Food Bank of the Rockies. That food assistance in the upper Roaring Fork Valley currently supports about 200 households representing hundreds of people every week, Sand said.

Last year at this time, the Food Bank distributed food once a month in the area to about 50 households, she said.

“The vast majority (of people who now need food assistance) have never resorted to any public assistance,” Sand said. “They consistently say, ‘Make sure I’m the last person who needs help.’ That’s the most common theme. It’s really heart-rending.”

Just as concerning as people who are unemployed are those who are under-employed, Sand and Sundeen said. Some people who might have had two or three jobs previously might only have part of one job left, they said.

Particularly hard hit have been caterers and the lack of weddings and other traditional summer events, as well as hands-on professions like massage therapists, Sand said.

“We don’t fully know what impact (the high unemployment) is having on our community at this point,” she said.

Colorado has been approved by the federal government to provide an extra $300 a week, though that will only cover three weeks for the period of July 26 to Aug. 15. The distribution has not yet begun though it will only include those already on unemployment as of July 25.