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Colorado’s Low Employment Rate Leaves Business Owners Concerned

Jackie Fortier
Michelle Edwards, owner of Johnstown Lunch Box.

Michelle Edwards is one of the owners of the Johnstown Lunch Box, a sandwich shop in one of the fastest growing towns on the Front Range. Despite a customer base that grows with each new housing development, Edwards was worried about what the 90 cent increase in the state minimum wage in January, 2017 would mean for her business -- but she has been pleasantly surprised.

“We’ve been fine. Customers were totally fine when we raised the cost of our sandwiches 25 cents,” she said. “It helped. Honestly, a little bit more would be good, but in a small town, you can only do so much. You gotta keep your prices low.”

Twelve people work at the Johnstown Lunch Box and all but two are part time.

“We tend to keep the same team,” she said.

Because of that, Edwards hasn’t had to deal with finding and retaining the right workers, which has become a huge problem for other Colorado business owners.

“We anticipate the unemployment rate to stay low in the state for the near future, and as long as that’s the case, businesses will have a hard time finding talent,” said Brian Lewandowski, research associate at the business research division at the University of Colorado, Boulder.

In August, Colorado’s unemployment rate was just 2.4% - well below the national average.

Credit Leeds School of Business / University of Colorado, Boulder
University of Colorado, Boulder
The Leeds Business Confidence Index fell ahead of the fourth quarter of 2017, reflecting lower expectations for both the end of the year and the first quarter of 2018.

The Leeds Business Confidence Index measures how business leaders feel about the national and state economies, sales, profits, hiring and capital expenditures.

For the second quarter in a row, state business leaders report they are less optimistic about the future.

“While we did see all six indicators decline over the quarter, we did see an increase year over year,” Lewandowski said. “When we look ahead two quarters [into 2018], business leaders’ confidence declined a little bit further even, so that’s something we’ll have to wait and watch to see if business leaders change their tune at all.”

Wage increases are matching inflation, while the cost of housing has increased more than 5 percent in the first half of 2017, leaving less money in people’s pockets - though Lewandowski doesn’t think that the holiday retail market will be affected.

“I don’t think it points to a bad fourth quarter, or a bad holiday season,” he said. “I think it’s just showing that some of that robust optimism that we had early in the year has maybe come back to reality a little bit.”

Like other small business owners, Edwards is looking toward Jan. 2018. Under Amendment 70, which was passed by voters in the Nov. 2016 election, the minimum wage will rise every year by 90 cents until it reaches $12 an hour in 2020. After 2020, it may rise based on inflation.

Edwards said with the last minimum wage increase they did not have to cut their employees hours.

“If we have to we will, but right now we don’t know. We pray day by day,” she said. 

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