HHS

Officials who work in Pitkin County's Health and Human Services Building are developing plans to create a fund to help out-of-work employees and also to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

Given that thousands of regional workers have been thrust from their jobs due to coronavirus concerns and temporary business closures, a partnership of government, nonprofit and private entities is being formed to raise money to assist people and families with food, utilities and rental-housing costs, officials said Monday.

Nan Sundeen, director of human services for Pitkin County, said ideas were discussed during a Monday afternoon teleconference. The details of where the money will come from and how it would be disbursed have yet to be worked out. More information is expected to be shared during a meeting of Pitkin County commissioners that starts at 1 p.m. today.

Participants in Monday’s teleconference included Sundeen; county human services deputy director Lindsay Maisch and economic services manager Sam Landercasper; Pitkin County Commissioner Greg Poschman; representatives of Eagle and Garfield counties; the Aspen Community Foundation; school resource centers; and the Glenwood Springs office of the nonprofit Catholic Charities.

“We are coordinating our economic assistance for people who are suffering from the effects of COVID-19,” Sundeen said. “It’s taking a little time to set up this structure but we want people to know that we’re looking at food and rental and utility relief. We know that people are financially struggling from not being able to work, and we will build something that will work from Aspen to Parachute.”

Sundeen said she hopes that area workers and residents “can hold on for a couple days” while a system is created that is “robust and supportive.”

In the meantime, she said, the Food Bank of the Rockies will be set up to provide various food products to those in need on Wednesday starting at 11 a.m. at the El Jebel Community Center.

“We’re going to do our best to work with all our partners, including businesses, to pull this together, so that we all survive and thrive,” Sundeen said.

She said she wasn’t sure how much more clarity on the initiative she will be able to provide at today’s Pitkin Board of County Commissioners meeting. She said it was her understanding that the meeting will involve the release of some emergency monetary aid.

“I will be there to talk about what we’re doing,” Sundeen said. “I know we have all the right partners at the table. … A lot of people have lost their income and are nervous about what April 1 will bring.”

Sundeen said she doesn’t know how much money will need to be raised. Many area workers that are dependent on the regional tourism economy could find themselves without pay for several weeks or even months.

Many businesses already closed for the remaining weeks of the current ski season during the weekend following Gov. Jared Polis’ announced shutdown of the state’s ski resorts, possibly temporarily, including the four ski areas operated by Aspen Skiing Co. Polis on Monday also ordered that all on-site dining will be prohibited at restaurants and bars for 30 days, effective immediately. Food drive-through, takeout and delivery services will still be allowed, according to a report from the Associated Press.

Polis also ordered the closure of all gyms, theaters and casinos in the state, and all the mandates were cited as part of the effort to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

“This is the most important thing that we’re working on right now, making sure that we have disaster assistance,” Sundeen said. “We’re looking at federal, state and local dollars. It’s all coming in waves and it will be coordinated so that we can support everybody who lives here.”

On the question of whether people will need to qualify for assistance, she said that’s still being determined. “If people lost work, and don’t have any income, and can’t pay their bills, that qualifies,” Sundeen said. “If they don’t have savings and can’t cover their bills, that qualifies.”

With local ski-area operations halted, SkiCo employees over the weekend expressed concern about whether they will be paid for part of their time off and get a break on company workforce-housing monthly rentals. Jeff Hanle, the resort company’s director of public relations, said Monday those details are still being ironed out.

He said “the intent is to pay everyone” for two weeks, “but that looks different for every individual, depending on their job, when they were set to leave and how much they get paid.

“We’re working on the plan, and it’s a very complicated plan, because we have a lot of different pay structures for different employees,” Hanle continued. “There’s a thousand different permutations that we’re working through.”

Hanle said SkiCo officials, including managers and supervisors, will be communicating directly with employees through a variety of means, and that specific information about compensation won’t be relayed through news media.

“It’s really not the rest of the world’s business how we compensate them,” he said. “We’re doing everything we can to come up with a plan to equitably treat all of our employees.”

SkiCo has multiple teams working on issues related to temporary pay and housing, he said. “There are ongoing emails going out to employees related to what we’re doing, but when it comes down to the specifics of how everybody is paid … there are a lot of things to figure out. We’ll be communicating with them in an ongoing fashion until we can get this resolved. It’s taking place as we speak.”

Poschman said private donors are already stepping up to the funding plate through relationships with the Aspen Community Foundation, which disburses funds to other nonprofits under the foundation’s umbrella. Monday’s teleconference lasted about 30 minutes, he said, and generally was an introduction on what every entity is working on and how they can work together efficiently and effectively.

“It was a good conversation,” Poschman said. “They’d already been working together before this but just getting on the phone together to express the urgency and the need in the community I think kind of helps invigorate everybody.”

Poschman said the county will be able to tap into federal grants and also its own emergency funds to provide assistance. He said no dollar figure has been estimated but he expects at least “a six-figure number” to set up a fund that can be used for food and rental assistance, and the like.

Numerous agencies are joining forces and a lot of resources will be available to weather the economic storm, he said.

“We are aware of the needs,” Poschman added. “We realize we have an economic crisis in addition to the COVID-19 crisis. The wheels are turning and we’re moving as fast as possible.”

Sundeen said the coronavirus crisis is unprecedented for the county, state, nation and world.

“In my career, and I’ve been around a long time, this is unprecedented. Luckily, we’ve had experience with other disasters on a much smaller scale so we have some systems in place. We just have to scale it up.”

Andre is a reporter for Aspen Daily News. He can be reached at andre@aspendailynews.com.