Local workers struggling in weakening economy
Steamboat Springs — The job board at the Colorado Workforce Center is sparse.
Pat Bonny shakes her head when she motions to the wall that at this time of year typically holds a hundred jobs. On Friday, there were fewer than 25.
The blue board had just seven job notices tacked up under the professional category. There were even fewer for construction. No white notices hung under food services or housekeeping.
“I have done this for a long time and I have never seen it this bad,” said Bonny, the labor and employment manager at the Steamboat Springs office.
Bonny helped start the office in the mid-1970s. The first year it opened was the still-remembered year of no snow. She said hoards of people came into the office to file for unemployment. She called it a baptism under fire.
Still, this winter is “as bad as it has ever been,” she said.
Community First National Bank President Paul Clavadetscher remembers when there were close to 500 help-wanted ads in the local newspaper. That was in the mid-1990s when he was president of the Steamboat Springs Chamber Resort Association. When he flipped through the paper this week, he saw about 30 employment ads.
“What we are seeing is less of a demand for employees,” Clavadetscher said.
From the people who come through her office, Bonny said, she has heard of resort businesses cutting back hours, turning 40-hour work weeks into 24-hour work weeks. Layoffs and cutbacks are also happening in the construction industry as building slows down, she said. The only construction jobs Bonny has available are for skilled electricians.
Right now, the Steamboat work force center has 400 active applications, but not all are necessarily in need of a full-time job.
At a recent summer job fair, Bonny said there were definitely more job searchers than jobs. And from what she has heard from professionals, things are getting worse, not better.
“There is not a whole lot out there,” Bonny said. “It is very discouraging. You feel sorry for these people.”
As jobs decrease, the Routt County Human Services Office has seen an almost doubling in those looking for government assistance.
Although the number of households actually receiving assistance has increased just moderately, Human Services Office Manager Kevin Haynes said the number of those asking for assistance has gone up dramatically. Right now, Haynes said the office is scheduling appointments two weeks out.
In February, 142 families received food stamps in Routt County, compared to 128 in 2002. In January of this year, 151 families received food stamps and Haynes said there are a total of 178 “ongoing cases,” families who need food stamps some months but not others.
In the federally funded Low Income Energy Assistance Program, which helps pay heating bills, 207 Routt County households received assistance this February, compared to 185 the year before. In January, 190 families received energy assistance, which was higher than the 177 in January 2002.
The increases are no more than 10 percent or 12 percent, but Haynes said 20 more families needing government assistance is a significant number.
Because Steamboat has a higher cost of living than other cities around the state, Haynes said many of the families who need help here do not qualify for assistance. As the “working poor,” their income is too high to meet state and federal guidelines for government assistance but too low to make ends meet in a resort town such as Steamboat.
Similar to Bonny, Haynes has seen the lack of jobs in the resort and construction industries. And even if workers’ jobs are not taken away, their hours are being reduced or their second jobs are being cut. For some working families in Steamboat, that is all it takes to tip the scales.
“When you had planned and budgeted to work 10 days and you only work six, you don’t qualify for food stamps but don’t have enough to make it on either,” Haynes said.
Haynes said when those who come into his office do not qualify for assistance, the Human Services Office sends them to LIFT-UP.
For its part, LIFT-UP saw a 40 percent increase in the number of people who tapped into its local food bank. In January, 379 people used the food bank, 109 more than the year before.
LIFT-UP Board President Kathy Conlon said the nonprofit was hit hard in the middle of December, and it has not tapered off since then.
“Our food donations can’t keep up with the food going out,” she said. “We are just having a really hard time.”
Conlon said more people are also asking for assistance with their utility bills. She is not sure if the increase is because of the economy or because more people have heard about the nonprofit service.
“Sometimes, I think people in Steamboat don’t think we have any poor people. Wake up: We do,” Conlon said.
Conlon said the food bank is only supposed to be used for emergency situations and can be used three times in six months, which they hope is enough time to let people get back on their feet.
From the merchants he has talked to, Clavadetscher said some business are doing better than last year, while others are down by as much as 40 percent. The businesses that are able to keep even or above last year’s numbers are the ones that can manage their costs, he said.
And part of managing the expense of a business is watching employee hours.
“Owners of businesses are working longer hours and hiring fewer employees,” Clavadetscher said.
Although the number of jobs and hours are down in Steamboat, Community First National Bank was among a number of banks that said deposit slips were flat or above last year.
“Everyone keeps talking about boom and bust,” Clavadetscher said. “We are not in a bust. We are just in an adjustment that comes naturally through any economic cycle.”
Tom Hopp, president of Wells Fargo Bank, doesn’t see a problem either. He said deposits and loans are both strong at his bank.
“More people are looking for jobs. Unemployment is higher than before,” he said. “But business is still good.”
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