Unemployment surge hits mountain counties hardest, followed by northern Front Range

Unlike the daily updates of hospitalizations and deaths by county because of COVID-19, official measures on the economic toll the pandemic is taking across Colorado won’t come out for weeks and months.

But one indicator, initial unemployment claims, offers an early warning about what is happening and where. Mountain resorts are getting hit the hardest with job losses, followed by the northern Front Range, while nonresort rural areas, especially those on the Eastern Plains, appear more insulated so far.

“Places that have most of their eggs in one basket are at greater risk,” said Brian Lewandowski, an economist with the University of Colorado Boulder Leeds School of Business, last month in a conference call.

Accommodations, restaurants, personal services, retail and arts and entertainment are all being hard hit, which isn’t a surprise given closures and social distancing efforts. But real estate services, education, manufacturing, transportation and even health care are shedding workers at a rapidly accelerating rate.

Statewide, there were 86,500 initial claims for unemployment filed just in the week ending March 28, according to the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment. That’s 42-times the 2,044 initial claims a week averaged across 2019.  Put another way, in just the last week of March, the state handled as many unemployment claims as it did across 42 weeks last year.

The nine hardest-hit Colorado counties are all in the mountains or foothills and they all depend on tourism spending, mostly ski resorts, but in two cases gaming.

In Summit County, there were 1,231 new unemployment claims submitted the last week of March, which was 95.5 times last year’s weekly average of 13. Almost two year’s worth of claims rained down from the county in a single week, mostly tied to the closures of the Breckenridge Ski Resort, Keystone Resort and Arapahoe Basin Ski Area.

Last week, Vail Resorts informed the state it had furloughed nearly 2,000 of its workers because of closures tied to the outbreak, hitting Summit and Eagle counties hard.

Grand County, home to Winter Park Resort, saw a nearly 80-fold increase in weekly claims. Here’s the progression. In the first week of March, there were seven claims, near last year’s average of six a week. The next week there were 10. By the third week, there were 81. By the fourth week, 448 workers in Grand County had lost income and filed for assistance.

The pace of weekly unemployment claims shot up 77-fold in Routt County, home to Steamboat Ski Resort; nearly 65-fold in Chaffee County, home to Monarch Mountain; 61-fold in Eagle County, home to Vail Mountain and Beaver Creek Resort; nearly 57-fold in La Plata County, home to Purgatory Resort and 54-fold in Gunnison County, home to Crested Butte Mountain Resort.

“The mountain markets are going to get hit pretty hard in the short term with March being one of the busiest times in the ski season,” said Glen Weinberg, owner of Fairview Commercial Lending in Steamboat Springs. “All of that revenue is totally gone for businesses in the area.”

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Casinos also shut their doors last month. Gilpin County, which includes Central City and Black Hawk, experienced a 77-fold increase in claims, which went from an average of four a week to 276 in the last week of March. Teller County, home to Cripple Creek, recorded a 62-fold rise, going from eight a week to 502.

Outside the resort areas, Larimer County had the biggest jump, 54-fold, in unemployment claims. It went from a weekly average of 102 last year to 5,505 filed the last week of March. Boulder County saw 4,386 claims the last week of March, a year’s worth measured by last year’s pace.

Claims increased 51.4-fold in Jefferson County, 51.2-fold in Douglas County, 48.4-fold in Denver County, 48.2-fold in Arapahoe County, 46.6-fold in Broomfield County and 37.7-fold in Adams County.

The smallest relative increases in people filing for unemployment benefits came on the Eastern Plains. Initial unemployment claims “only” tripled in Cheyenne County the last week in March, with increases also low in Hinsdale, Crowley, Kiowa and Bent counties.

Remote workers safely cocooning at home shouldn’t get complacent. The state is watching closely for more claims from professional and technical services workers in the weeks ahead, said Ryan Gedney, a senior labor economist with the state. That would point to deeper and more lasting damage to the state economy.

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