A year ago, along with the rest of the state, nation and world, Upper Arkansas Valley business owners and managers were attempting to cope with  fallout from the coronavirus.

Businesses were in many instances reeling from closures, from reduced and changing operations and procedures, from loss of operating income and, to top it off, not knowing what to expect, what the future might hold.

Businesses, from banks to bike shops, from restaurants to lodges to retailers and about every business in between, had to retrench, to figure out how to continue to operate, in many cases at significantly reduced incomes, dealing with the virus.

Some businesses did not have the resources to survive the upheaval, even with help from the federal government’s Paycheck Protection Program. Some simply closed. 

Businesses that found a way to continue, who survived, now, a year later, in many cases, face a new challenge: finding employees to work.

The Mail’s “Help Wanted” ads typically are running to three pages with 70 or more listings, with many advertising for multiple positions. These are not “dish washers wanted” for minimum wage jobs, either, though a number of restaurants are advertising for help. Many of the positions offered range in pay from $15 to $20 per hour on up to $30 an hour for health care jobs.

In the meantime, Colorado’s unemployment rate for March was 6.4 percent, a total that represents more than 200,000 people. 

What’s happening here? How can businesses and government entities, too, be desperate for help while the state’s unemployed numbers be about double what they were a year ago?

For one, some unemployed are choosing to stay unemployed because they can collect state and federal unemployment benefits that are as much as what they had been making while working, or if not, sufficient to make ends meet, at least for now. 

These individuals can be downright picky about jobs, about whether or not to go back to work, at least until their unemployment expires.

Another issue is the cost of living in the valley, namely the cost and availability of housing. According to local real estate companies, the average cost to buy a house in the county runs somewhere between $450,000 to about $525,000. For the former, with 20 percent down, at an interest rate of three percent, house payments, including principal, interest, taxes and insurance, would be about $1,800 per month for a 30-year mortgage.

If housing costs should be no more than a third of income, to afford an $1,800 house payment, an individual or family income needs to be about $65,000 annually, or about $31 an hour.

Renting is no better. If “average” rents in Salida are about $1,500 per month, including utilities, housing costs come to $18,000 annually. Again, if housing is to be no more than a third of pay, annual income needs to be about $54,500, or based on 2,080 hours worked in a year, about $26 per hour.

Even for those who can afford an “average” monthly mortgage or rent payment, finding a house to buy or apartment to rent in Salida or Poncha Springs is another matter entirely.

The combination of relatively high unemployment pay leading to folks choosing to ride out their benefits, high housing costs and the lack of housing available for sale or rent, are reasons why local employers are struggling to find workers. And this is going into the busiest months of the year.

For many businesses, dealing with the coronavirus a year ago was one crisis. Today’s business crisis is finding employees while at the same time still dealing with aspects of the virus, including dealing with employees who fall ill with the disease.

— MJB