Colorado Income Map

Pitkin County’s low wages leave many in the gap between being able to make ends meet and earning too much to qualify for financial assistance programs.

Pitkin County has the highest rate of working people in the state who do not earn enough income to pay their bills, according to figures from the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment that were presented Tuesday to county commissioners.

Sam Landercasper, economic services manager for Pitkin County, presented the findings to the board during the quarterly check-in on the county’s human services budget.

The Colorado Workforce Center, a division of the state’s department of labor and employment, collects data on households that meet the “self-sufficiency standard,” which, in Pitkin County, is 433 percent of federal poverty guidelines. For a single person working in Pitkin County, 13 percent of jobs do not meet that standard. The number of jobs that don’t meet sustainability requirements rises to 90.4 percent for households of five.

“It just kind of paints a picture of some of the challenges that our residents face, and particularly with economic assistance and the folks that are coming through our door,” Landercasper said.

He pointed out that this leaves many in the gap between being able to make ends meet and earning too much to qualify for financial assistance programs provided by his office. Federal programs also don’t offer assistance to people who are that high above the poverty line.

“None of our programs touch that, they don’t even get close,” Landercasper said.

Last year the Colorado Center on Law and Policy published a report analyzing the salaries from top jobs within the county. Of the top 50 jobs, 27 do not pay the self-sufficiency salary. A single parent of a preschool-aged child would need to earn $33.75 an hour to meet the standard, or $71,274 a year.

Landercasper contrasted this data with unemployment numbers in the county, which are among the lowest in the state. Numbers through March show 309 unemployed individuals in the county while there were 1,085 available jobs.

“We know the wages are low, we know that there are 1,000 jobs that are open, but they are low-wage jobs, and they are not moving people into self-sufficiency,” said Nan Sundeen, the county’s director of human services.

“So really the bigger conversation with workforce in the community is potentially wage reform,” she said.

Pitkin County is trying to get its own branch of the Colorado Workforce Center to assist with local employment opportunities. Currently the closest branch is in Glenwood Springs. The county has also opted into the state-run Employment First program, which works to connect individuals receiving public assistance with internships or work opportunities.

Sundeen told the commissioners that many Pitkin County residents work an average of 1.3 jobs to make ends meet, which then causes them to rely more heavily on other assistance programs.

“So then there’s a whole bunch of social impacts to that, which is the family structure, the family strength [and] the supervision of children,” Sundeen said.

Commissioner Steve Child asked if the self-sufficiency standard could be used when doling out funding for state programs, like food assistance and subsidized child care.

Currently the state looks at the consumer price index, in which Pitkin County looks healthier than the rest of the state, and thus gets shortchanged, he said.

“We come out on the short end of the stick compared to every other county in the state,” Child said.

Sundeen said that the state does not consider the suitability standard when allocating funds to counties, but that the county tried to consider it when passing financial assistance on to local residents. She encouraged the commissioners to keep the standard in mind when making decisions about things like assigning housing categories when creating new employee housing, and said the county uses the metric when determining the wages they pay their own workers.

The reality of the resort town, she said, is that the large number of available jobs are going to continue to be hard to fill if workers are not paid high enough wages.

“We are continuing to work on work-support strategies, and trying to help people have higher level jobs so they can be self-sufficient,” Sundeen said. “Which, in a little bit, flies in the face of the resort economy.”

alycin@aspendailynews.com

Alycin Bektesh is a reporter for the Aspen Daily News. She can be reached at Alycin@aspendailynews.com or on Twitter @alycinwonder.