Unemployment in La Plata and Montezuma counties continues to drop after spiking in April when the most severe stay-at-home restrictions closed restaurants and most retail stores.
But the downward trend largely depends on how virulent COVID-19 is during autumn and winter.
The unemployment rate for La Plata County in August, the latest month for which data is available, was 5.5%. In Montezuma County, it was 6.1%, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
In La Plata County, the unemployment rate peaked in April at 13.7%. In Montezuma County, the peak occurred during the same month, at 12.2%.
Wade Litt, assistant professor of economics at Fort Lewis College, said employment in Southwest Colorado, particularly in La Plata County, heavily depends on jobs in food service, retail, recreational entertainment, and arts and entertainment.
The dependency on those sectors, largely tied to tourism, makes Southwest Colorado and La Plata County “particularly vulnerable to spikes in COVID-19,” he said.
Employment in food service, retail, recreational entertainment, and arts and entertainment sectors make up 35% of the jobs in La Plata County, compared with 6% throughout Colorado.
“If COVID does come back again, and we have another wave, our economy is more exposed than the state as a whole,” he said. “The accommodation and food services sectors were particularly hard hit, and you would expect those sectors to be particularly hurt again if we see a second wave.”
Once COVID-19 restrictions eased, the rural nature of Southwest Colorado began to work in favor of a more robust regional jobs recovery, Litt said.
“RV sales are hitting record highs,” he said. “People are still traveling domestically to places like La Plata County. Instead of a trip to Europe, people are coming to rural attraction areas with national parks and national forests.”
Unemployment rates can be misleading and present a too-rosy view of the economy, Litt said.
“The unemployment rates can look artificially a little healthier than they actually are,” he said. “The labor force participation rate and the employment-to-population ratio still haven’t reached the numbers we had prior to the 2008 recession.”
Jack Llewellyn, executive director of the Durango Chamber of Commerce, said enhanced unemployment benefits – which started at $600 extra a week and was lowered to $300 a week before they expired at the end of July – kept many people from looking for jobs.
“I think more people are looking to go back to work because benefits have scaled back, and there’s a lot of job openings,” he said. “But I think the hard part is the balance of factors in play.
“A lot of kids are at home learning remotely. There’s so many other factors at play that I think are preventing or keeping people from re-entering the workplace. You also have COVID worries, things like that. People are afraid of exposure.”
Many people are also reassessing their careers – looking to work from home – and Llewellyn suspects that has led many people to seek educational opportunities that would allow them to make midcareer shifts.
“I think a lot of people are reconsidering their careers, what they want to do,” he said. “And they’re pivoting. They’re thinking, I want to be able to work from home or to be a remote worker.”