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What’s behind a workforce shortage in Southwest Colorado?

Local businesses struggle to find willing applicants
Colorado data shows a consistent recovery after the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. But La Plata County businesses are still struggling to regain full staffing. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

“Now hiring” banners are flying along Main Avenue in Durango. Job listings are getting few or zero responses. In Vallecito, a restaurant closed because of short staffing.

La Plata County business owners are worried about a workforce shortage.

Colorado’s economy seems to be rebounding faster than the United States overall. But in a recent local survey, more than a third of La Plata County businesses said they are struggling to fill open positions.

The cause is not yet clear, but high housing costs and unemployment benefits are leading factors, businesses said.

“There are challenges. It is hard to get people to apply to jobs, let alone want to work in some of these jobs,” said Clark Craig, Ignacio Chamber of Commerce president, based on anecdotal information. “It’s not limited to the food industry. It’s pretty much across the board, as far as we can see.”

Statewide, employers have been able to recover about 73.5% of the jobs lost between February and April 2020. That’s higher than the U.S. job recovery rate, 69.8%, according to a June report from the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment.

The state, however, is trailing behind the country on unemployment. About 6.2% of Colorado’s labor force (those 16 and older) were unemployed in June compared to a 5.9% unemployment rate across the country.

La Plata County is beating both: Its unemployment rate is 5.8%. Summer tourism is also high, which helps the local economy, and businesses are used to seasonal fluctuations in staffing.

But this is different, they said.

About 39% of businesses said they were not fully staffed in June, according to a survey conducted by the La Plata County Economic Development Alliance and the Durango Chamber of Commerce.

The survey received 220 responses from at least 15 economic sectors, including food service, professional services like bookkeeping and health care.

“We just get less applicants than normal. The applicants that do want to work, everybody wants $20 an hour, and they refuse to do anything,” said Kimberly Newland, district manager for Jimmy John’s. “It’s worse since COVID.”

Typically, staffing is a struggle in the summer because tourism increases during a time when college students are gone, she said.

“The difference is, right now, with the whole housing crisis,” Newland said. “I’ve had three people who were going to move here from other stores and can’t even find housing so they can’t come.”

Without enough staff members to cover shifts, full-time employees are working 50 hours each week. Newland is working 70 to 80, she said. The store cut its hours and now closes at 6 p.m. instead of 10 p.m.

“We’re barely able to stay open even for those hours,” Newland said.

Fur Trappers Steakhouse and Bar closed its Vallecito location July 8, citing a lack of staffing. The library in Ignacio and A&L Coors Inc. in Durango advertised jobs but got zero responses.

The voicemail for M. Leeder Construction said the company was no longer accepting new customers “due to an overwhelming schedule and a lack of ability to find any qualified individuals to come back to work.”

Even the city of Durango is having a hard time filling its part-time positions.

“It’s a highly competitive job market right now,” said Tom Sluis, city spokesman.

Hiring signs were at fast food restaurants and retail stores Tuesday in north Durango and the downtown area. Tables might be available in restaurants, but there is not enough kitchen staff to cook the food, said Jack Llewellyn, executive director of the Durango Chamber of Commerce.

“If anything, it’s mostly been part-time people we’re looking for, but in general, there’s just not a lot of takers,” said Kalan Burnham, manager at Gardenswartz Sporting Goods. The store also cut its hours. Some staff members didn’t come back when the store reopened in June 2020.

“A lot of them could definitely come back, but they’d be coming back for less than they’d be getting paid by being on unemployment,” Burnham said.

The front window of Jimmy John's sandwich shop on Friday is covered with help wanted and job information in an effort to attract job applicants. It’s part of a trend of businesses looking for employees around La Plata County. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

Rick McCune, president of the Vallecito Lake Chamber of Commerce, also said the cause of short staffing in his community boiled down to unemployment benefits.

In 2020, the federal government layered $600 per week onto state unemployment benefits for eligible workers in an attempt to mitigate the economic impacts of mandated business closures during the pandemic.

In the American Rescue Plan Act, the federal government changed the benefits to an extra $300 per week. The additional benefits run out at the beginning of September.

About 45% of survey respondents said they thought unemployment benefits were negatively impacting employment applications.

Other factors are also involved, like the lack of child care, low pay, the lack of benefits and the rapidly increasing cost of housing in Durango, the survey showed.

Some restaurant owners expect an increase in staffing after the additional federal unemployment benefits end in September.

In the meantime, Llewellyn said opportunities are available for employees looking for work or wanting to retrain and enter a new field.

Employers can focus on being creative to meet the changing needs of potential hires, whether it is remote days or more flexible hours. Appreciating employees and adapting can entice applicants, he said.

For customers, Llewellyn and business owners had one piece of advice: Be patient.

“Those that are working are working extra hours. They’re stressed. If you can afford to round up your tip to 25%, pay it forward,” Llewellyn said. “Doing things like that let someone know they’re appreciated.”

smullane@durangoherald.com

This story has been updated with a correct comparison of unemployment numbers in Colorado and across the United States.

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