Haven’t we heard this song before? It may be a question that a lot of Puebloans might be asking themselves---again. Pueblo, the hub of southern Colorado commerce, and once the state’s second largest city, has once again been hit hard by the economic downturn. The city’s claims for unemployment in the first two weeks of March---57 and 78 respectively---leaped to 560 the following week before skyrocketing to 1,761 at months end. The spike, no surprise, has been linked to the coronavirus pandemic.
“As a citizen, I’m just as shocked as any citizen,” said Diana Esquibel, Director of the Pueblo and Upper Arkansas Work Center. Many, if not most, of the claims have been in the area’s bar, restaurant and service industry labor market. But one of the city’s higher paying employers, Evraz Steel, has also announced layoffs; a fifth of the company’s workforce. Pueblo’s unemployment was pegged at 6.9 percent at the end of March, the tenth highest in the state.
Late last week, Evraz gave furlough notices to approximately 200 workers. The company said that the dip in the oil and gas industry made it necessary to cull the workforce until there is an industry rebound. Eric Ludwig, president of United Steel Workers Local 2102, told the Pueblo Chieftain, “The only encouraging words from the company are the layoffs are temporary, so until oil rebounds, we are screwed.”
For the last several weeks oil has traded at historically low numbers, including a heretofore negative $37 a barrel just last week. There is a crude oil market glut and no where to sell or store it. Both in 1998 and again ten years later, oil prices tanked. But each of those times, the dip was for economic factors. A worldwide pandemic did not enter the equation.
Evraz said that it will keep as many workers on site as it can. It will also have them working until current surplus is shipped over the next several weeks. Additionally, all salaried workers will take one-week furloughs throughout the month and each month until things return to normal levels.
Unemployment claims in Pueblo are painful. But the state’s ninth-largest city is in the same painful posture as the rest of Colorado. Statewide claims soared to more than 67,000 for a one-week period in April and hit nearly 280,000 for the entire month.
Because of the surge in unemployment, filing claims may be frustrating. But, Esquibel says the state “did eliminate the one-week waiting week to expedite getting money into the hands of our citizens.” To expedite a claim, “We strongly recommend that if a claimant has a checking account, they do direct deposit.” If a claim is approved, it could mean an extra $600 a week for the recipient.
Despite the downturn that has resulted in the flood of unemployment claims, the city has so far avoided any layoffs. It is also continuing to abide by the Governor’s shelter in place edict.
Still, because sales tax is one of the largest generators for the city, the plunge in jobs has been painful. But, so far, the pandemic has not been as painful as what they city experienced in the mid and late seventies when it lost two strong employers, the CF&I steel plant and the Pueblo Army Depot. Unemployment then hovered above 20 percent. Back then, In just a single day---the day the steel mill announced its downsizing---nearly 7,000 pink slips were issued.
In the years that have passed, the town has made a dramatic resurgence and no longer is characterized by manufacturing. In fact, before the pandemic, only 6 percent of the workforce had jobs in manufacturing. But no matter how it paints itself today, Pueblo and all of Colorado are going to have to steel themselves for a deep job dive. And right now, with a pandemic calling the shots, no one can say with certainty nor confidence when things will break to the surface again.