Leisure, hospitality industry hit hard by pandemic; 19% of Routt County’s workforce has applied for unemployment | SteamboatToday.com

Leisure, hospitality industry hit hard by pandemic; 19% of Routt County’s workforce has applied for unemployment

The leisure and hospitality industries have been the hardest hit by the economic downturn caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
John F. Russell

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — The official unemployment numbers in Colorado will not be released until May 22, but officials say even then those numbers may not accurately represent the true impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the state’s workforce.

“The Bureau of Labor Statistics calls 60,000 U.S. households and asks the people they talk to, ‘Have you looked for work in the last four weeks, and are you able and available to go to work right away?'” said Jessica Valand, who serves as regional director for workforce development in Northwest Colorado, which has local offices in Steamboat Springs and Craig. “The people will answer ‘yes’ to that, and that’s what becomes the unemployment rate.”

Valand explained the number has nothing to do with the number of unemployment applications that have been filed, and during the pandemic, people’s answers to those questions might not reflect the true situation.

“Right now, you can imagine, for a lot of reasons, there are people who might not answer ‘yes’ to both of those questions,” Valand said. “It’s just important to understand what that unemployment rate is representing.”

She said she likes to look at the number of unemployment applications compared to the current workforce to get a clear understanding of what local communities are facing and why so many people are currently seeking assistance.

“The unemployment rate doesn’t have any reflection of the percentage of people who are getting unemployment insurance,” Valand explained. “They don’t ask if you have filed for unemployment insurance, and they don’t ask if you are getting unemployment insurance.”

Getting help in Routt County

Go to Coloradoui. gov
This is the best place to apply for unemployment insurance for people with W-2s or for gig workers and those who don’t otherwise qualify for regular unemployment to apply for pandemic assistance.

Visit colorado.gov/PEAK
This is the best place to apply for assistance programs, like Medicaid, CHIP, SNAP, TSNF and others, overseen by the Routt County  Department of Human Services. Those in need of assistance can also call 970-870-5280 or email dhsfamed@co.routt.co.us.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics last week reported the national unemployment rate is now 14.7% with the biggest hit coming in the leisure and hospitality industry, where an estimated 7.7 million people have lost jobs since March.

In Routt County, unemployment numbers will not be released until late next week, but Valand said the number of unemployment claims reveals the community’s dependence on tourism.

“So anywhere where tourism is like 50% of the base industry profile, which it is here, or greater, you’re seeing significantly higher percentages of people who have filed for unemployment benefits,” Valand said. “That makes sense, because we know that the most claims for unemployment are coming out of the leisure and hospitality industries, and we have more than our fair share of those.”

In Routt County, 16,000 people make up the workforce, and as of April 25, 2,700 of those workers have applied for unemployment benefits, according to Valand. There were another 300 who applied for the new pandemic assistance, which is basically unemployment for workers and people who don’t normally qualify.

When those numbers are added together it means that 19% of Routt County’s workforce has applied for unemployment benefits. As a state, Colorado is somewhere around 12% with Pitkin County leading the way at 26%. Valand said Eagle and Summit counties come in at just over 20%.

“That is not the unemployment rate,” Valand said. “That represents the percentage of people in our community who have filed for assistance, because they’ve lost wages due to the coronavirus.”

Routt County Department of Human Services Director Kelly Keith said her staff saw more than 300 applications for assistance in March, and April has stayed steady at the increased number. That’s up from 100 applications the department handled in February.

“There has been a huge increase in demand for services, and we are seeing anywhere from two to five times the amount of applications depending on the program,” Keith said. “We’ve seen an increase in the number of people applying for food assistance benefits or basic cash assistance, and we are actually seeing a lot of requests for emergency one-time funding for utilities and things like that.”

The local Department of Human Services can connect people to a number of services that provide medical help, such as Medicaid and CHIP, food assistance programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program — SNAP — and basic cash assistance programs like the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TSNF. Keith said when people apply for unemployment benefits, they often need help in other areas.

“These are unprecedented times,” Keith said. “We’re all just kind of doing the best that we can, and my team is doing a fantastic job of stepping up and getting people on benefits. The workload has significantly increased, but they’re doing a great job.”

Valand believes the high unemployment numbers will be around for some time, especially in tourist-based economies like Steamboat Springs.

“Since the Great Depression, we have not seen unemployment rates this high,” Valand said. “It was like a 180 — I think I still have whiplash. It’s a total reversal of where we were in January.”

To reach John F. Russell, call 970-871-4209, email jrussell@SteamboatPilot.com or follow him on Twitter @Framp1966.

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