Routt County’s workforce cut deep by recession
June 25, 2011
Steamboat Springs — For more than two years, a 7,000-square-foot duplex on Snowflake Circle in Steamboat Springs sat vacant and less than halfway completed. Tyvek paper that covered the home, whose construction stalled because of a lack of funding during the recession, fluttered noisily, to the dismay of neighbors, and window frames sat waiting for glass.
"The neighbors came up and thanked us when we started working on it again in March," said Michael Wiley, a construction worker from Stagecoach who was cutting trim for the house Thursday.
But the neighbors weren't the only people who were anxious to hear the sound of table saws and hammers echo across the neighborhood. The sounds attracted other self-proprietors like Wiley who were eager to put their hands on a project.
"We got a lot of visits from guys looking for work, seeing if they could help with anything," Wiley said. "They saw the activity and were just looking to be part of it."
Routt County's construction industry was hit hard by the recession and during the past four years has accounted for many of the jobs that have been erased from a shrinking workforce.
Data from the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment show that in 2007, there was an average of 2,889 construction jobs in the county, and wages paid to workers totaled $151,125,673. Last year, those numbers were less than half of what they were before the recession. There were an average of 1,192 construction jobs in 2010, and wages totaled $63,671,804. The figures are based on quarterly employment numbers for the seasonal industry.
Drops in employment have occurred across all of the county's major industries.
Brian Bradbury, an employment specialist with the Steamboat Springs branch of the Colorado Workforce Center, said last week that the labor force in Routt has decreased from its peak of 17,116 in January 2008 to 13,106 last month. Of that number, 11,643 had jobs.
"Because the construction industry is so networked into everything, it pulled everything else down with it," he said.
A gradual decline
As he listened to Creedence Clearwater Revival play softly over a portable radio set up near his cutting table, Wiley said the slowing of building permits and the subsequent loss of jobs in his industry didn't occur overnight.
"As a construction worker, you gradually started to feel nervous when you weren't making the wages you were used to," he said as he put his measuring tape to a piece of wood for the first new home he has laid hands on since 2009. "You saw your friends lose their homes and leave town."
He said each project, no matter the size, is a gift.
"This worked out great for us because we can keep busy. We do more skiing now because you can't count on framing a house in the winter anymore."
Fox Construction Co. Vice President Sarah Fox said smaller projects and additions to existing homes have kept her business going after it was forced to shed about half of its workforce.
"We're slowly starting to hire people back, but we won't be able to get to the employment levels we had five years ago," she said.
Drops in all sectors
The hum of table saws and the bangs of hammers remind Wiley and other construction workers at the site how far they've come since the trough of the recession, but Ace at the Curve owner Scott Schlapkohl is keeping a close eye on the number of grills customers pluck from the shelves of his store. He counts each one sold as a blessing.
"When the recession started, people weren't buying as many of them," Schlapkohl said, noting that his profits declined and he often didn't replace employees who left voluntarily. "But today, grills are racing out the door. We're getting back to where we were."
Schlapkohl said the recession took his workforce from a typical level of 40 employees to about 25 in 2009. Positions went unfilled, and profits decreased, but he said he's seeing an increase in sales for the first time in years, and his employee roster is back to 40.
Across the parking lot at Big House Burgers and Bottle Cap Bar, restaurateur Rex Brice — who also owns Lil' House Country Biscuits & Coffee, Mazzola's Majestic Italian Diner and Rex's American Grill & Bar — said the recession squeezed out many of his part-time workers and forced the employees of his restaurants to work more efficiently. In 2008, he oversaw 150 employees. Today, he has 100. He also has cut the number of managers at his establishments in half.
"I attribute some of that to efficiency and the slight downturn in our business," he said. "We had to change a lot."
Data released by the state labor agency this month showed Routt's unemployment rate at 11.2 percent, an increase from April. But Yampa Valley Partners, which interprets national and local economic data to help community discussions in Routt and Moffat counties, is comparing that number with a larger collection of economic data and says the local economy is slowly trending upward.
Scott Ford, who analyzes economic data for the nonprofit group, said an economic stress indicator the group uses that measures the ratio of the workforce to the number of available jobs has been improving since last year. He said that unlike the unemployment percentages that are released each month by the state, his numbers are adjusted for seasonality.
"We're improving, so it's exciting," he said. "I expect that the recovery period for this recession will follow similar patterns of past recessions."
This month's Yampa Valley Partners newsletter said the employment situation continues to improve in Moffat and Routt counties, and the economic stress factor attributed to unemployment is approaching zero, meaning the size of the workforce and the number of jobs are approaching a balance.
A lasting Impact
Although there are indicators that the employment outlook is starting to improve in Routt County, an unprecedented number of county residents still are seeking help with rent payments, medical expenses and food.
"We have a workforce here that is still heavily unemployed, and we are certainly seeing a lot of those individuals here," LIFT-UP of Routt County Director David Freseman said. "Last year, we saw our all-time highest level of services."
Freseman said his organization distributed 1,130 bags of food to residents in May, compared with 653 at the same time last year. LIFT-UP distributed 451 bags in May 2007, before the recession.
The Routt County Department of Human Services also is reporting unprecedented demands for assistance.
The department distributed an unprecedented $1.1 million in food assistance to county residents last year, compared with $279,971 in 2009. The department also reports that the number of Medicaid recipients in the county has increased 100 percent from 2008 to 2010. Records show there were 1,303 recipients in the county last month, compared with 651 at the same time in 2008.
"We have steadily seen an increase in demand for public assistance programs over the last two years," Director Vickie Clark said. "And every time we think we're hitting our peak, but the numbers keep going up. Our food assistance caseload breaks new records every month."
To reach Scott Franz, call 970-871-4210 or email ScottFranz@SteamboatToday.com
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