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Official unemployment numbers show impacts of COVID-19 on Routt County

Before the pandemic, mountain towns like Steamboat Springs were looking for employees to fill open spots with an unemployment rate of around 1.7%. In April, the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment estimated that 2,813 people had filed for the county's unemployment rate at 17.7%
John F. Russell

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS  — The latest regional unemployment numbers released Friday by the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment reflect just how hard the hospitality and service industries in mountain resort communities have been hit.

Routt County’s current unemployment rate is 17.7% and other resort towns are also seeing steep increases in their jobless rates. In April 2019, 363 people were receiving unemployment and Routt County’s unemployment rate was 2.3%. This year that number has grown to 2,813 people on unemployment, according to statistics released by the state.

“That’s a pretty big number, yes,” said Jessica Valand, regional director with the Colorado Workforce Center. “If you look at the data, pretty much anywhere that has a tourism driver in the economic base is seeing higher unemployment rates. That’s not surprising, because we know that the majority of unemployment insurance claims are coming from restaurants, lodging, hospitality and tourism-based industries.”

The economic shutdown, caused by COVID-19 pandemic, resulted in high unemployment numbers across the state with some of the highest recorded on the Western Slope. Pitkin County’s unemployment rate is 23.1%, followed by Summit at 21.1 %, Eagle at 20%, Grand at 19%, Lake at 16.7%, Garfield at 13.4%, Moffat at 10.5%, Jackson at 7.4% and Rio Blanco at 7.3%.

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As a state, Colorado has an unemployment rate of 11.3% compared to 11.7% nationwide. 

“We have to stop and acknowledge that behind these numbers are individuals and families and kids, and the bigger picture is how devastating this is financially and mentally for so many employees and business owners across the country and right here in Routt County,” said John Bristol, the Steamboat Springs Chamber’s economic development director. “I was not surprised by this number, nor the speed, as economists around the country have been predicting 15%, and I anticipated that we would see something north of 15% — in the 17% to 18% range —  here for Routt County.”

In Routt County, 19% of the workforce has filed claims for unemployment insurance, but Valand explained the number has nothing to do with the actual unemployment rate in Colorado. The Bureau of Labor statistics comes up with the number by polling 60,000 U.S. households.

“I was a little surprised at how high the official rate was (in Routt County),” Valand said. “That’s survey data where they asked someone have you actively looked for work inside of the last four weeks? And are you able to available go to work? We knew that the claim-filing rate was in that ballpark, but I was surprised to see that the official unemployment rate was as high as it was.”

With businesses reopening, the hope is unemployment numbers will start to fall, but neither Valand or Bristol are ready to say when that might happen. There are still way too many unknowns as Steamboat and Routt County continue to deal with the impacts of COVID-19.

“I think that the May data, in all likelihood, will be a bit higher than what we saw for April,” Valand said. “But that said, there are people that are going back to work and then there are several businesses in the community that got the Paycheck Protection Program funding and are trying to bring their workers back to work. 

“It’s certainly possible that the rate goes down a bit or stays about the same, it’s hard to say, but I can tell you that the claim filing numbers are continuing to go up,” Valand added.

She is also bracing for the end of PPP, which for many businesses will come in June, as well as the end of the CARES Act provision that gives the unemployed an additional $600 a week, which is set to sunset at the end of July. Without those programs, some employees may find themselves without work, and others may start to feel the real impacts of the slowing economy.

But Bristol is optimistic that the local community will get through COVID-19 in the same way the residents of Routt County handled the Spanish influenza that swept across the U.S. in 1918 and 1919.

“I think, as I look at the bigger picture, I’m optimistic,” Bristol said. “I think that Routt County folks take on a lot of personal responsibility, and we have that Western independence, grit and determination.”

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


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