Jobless Rate Up In Roaring Fork Valley

More people unemployed in Aspen-area in December 2010 than in prior year

by Scott Condon / The Aspen Times

The Roaring Fork Valley can’t shake the recession, according to an unemployment report released this week by the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment.

Unemployment in all three of the counties that comprise the Roaring Fork Valley was higher in December than the same month in 2009, the report showed.

Pitkin County’s unemployment rate crept up from 5.5 percent in December 2009 to 6.8 percent last month. Garfield County’s unemployment rate surged from 7.8 percent in December 2009 to 9.4 percent last month. Eagle County’s unemployed increased from 6.9 percent of the work force in December 2009 to 8 percent last month.

The numbers suggest that while the national economy is slowly recovering, the Roaring Fork Valley’s economy is still ailing.

“I think it’s getting worse,” said Marie Gasau, minister at the Basalt United Community Methodist Church.

Gasau is involved in multiple relief efforts in the valley and said demand shot up last year for programs like Thanksgiving food baskets for the needy and Christmas gifts for children of struggling families.

Gasau said she believes the valley has been “so isolated” from recessions in the past because of the strength of its economy, but the most recent downturn was so broad and deep that the valley couldn’t dodge it.

She said she is in contact with many people in the construction industry and a lot of middle management workers who are wondering: “Am I going to be able to hold on?”

December wasn’t the same

The labor department’s report said the unemployment rate for Colorado in December was 8.8 percent while the national level stood at 9.4 percent. The state unemployment rate was the highest in 28 years, according to the Colorado Center on Law and Policy, a Denver advocacy group that analyzes economic issues.

While Pitkin and Eagle counties remain below the state and national rates, they are significantly higher than what the resort areas typically encounter in December.

It’s usually all-hands-on-deck in Aspen and Snowmass — as well as Vail and Beaver Creek — when hordes of tourists flock to the ski resorts during the holidays. But the number of workers officially employed in Pitkin and Eagle counties fell well below the level during the boom years.

In December 2005, there were 357 unemployed workers in Pitkin County out of a workforce of 12,380, according to the state labor department records. That was virtually full employment, with an unemployment rate of only 2.9 percent.

In the latest December, there were 762 unemployed workers out of a work force of 11,226 in Pitkin County for a rate of 6.8 percent.

Eagle County saw 1,016 unemployed workers in December 2005 out of a total work force of 31,817. That compares to 2,041 unemployed out of a work force of 29,381 in the latest December.

The gloomy numbers didn’t surprise Don Cohen, executive director of the Economic Council of Eagle County, a nonprofit organization that tracks economic trends and works on diversifying the economy. The organization just analyzed employment data over the last couple of years and determined Eagle County shed 6,000 jobs between the third quarter of 2008 and third quarter of last year.

“We knew it was big but now we have a number,” Cohen said.

The construction industry was particularly hard hit, he said. The job-loss figures don’t reflect independent contractors who are self-employed and aren’t drawing a wage. Their lack of work would drive the figures even higher.

The resort economies of Colorado lagged behind the rest of the nation in feeling the pinch of the recession. Now their recovery is taking longer, according to Cohen.

“I think it’s really going to be slow to recover,” he said, adding his “gut” instinct is employment levels in Eagle County won’t return to the 2008 level for another 10 years.

The new research on conditions in Eagle County is available at www.economiccouncil.biz, then look for the reports link. Pitkin County doesn’t have a similar organization.

Double whammy in Garfield County

The tourism sectors of Pitkin and Eagle counties have shown some signs of life. Aspen Skiing Co.’s skier visits were up 7 percent between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day compared to the same period the prior season. Aspen’s sales tax revenues have also bounced back.

Vail Resorts logged a 10 percent increase in skier visits to start the season. That includes operations at Vail Mountain, Beaver Creek and four other resorts outside Eagle County.

Garfield County doesn’t depend as heavily on winter tourism. It’s suffering a double whammy with construction crippled and the gas industry treading water.

In December 2005, Garfield County had 1,065 unemployed workers out of a work force of 31,658. That was an unemployment rate of 3.4 percent.

In December 2010, the ranks of the unemployed grew to 3,043 out of a work force of 32,358 for rate of 9.4 percent.

Rev. Gasau is so concerned about the plight of the valley’s jobless that she is trying to coordinate relief efforts among the counties and towns as well as the charitable organizations. Limited funding means the organizations cannot afford to duplicate efforts, she said. Coordination is needed, she said, because relief and charitable efforts might be needed for quite some time.

“The sense of optimism — of ‘we’re going to hold on and times are going to get better’ — isn’t there,” Gasau said.

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