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Colorado unemployment claims passed 100,000 last week as job losses continue to outpace Great Recession levels

Mountain communities saw the largest increases in unemployment claims. The state’s filing system, meanwhile, is gearing up to pay out an additional $600 a week thanks to the federal stimulus package.

Customers pick up meals from the Vine Bistro restaurant in downtown Montrose on Tuesday, March 17, 2020. All restaurants and bars in Colorado are closed until at least May 26. (William Woody, Special to The Colorado Sun)
  • Credibility:

Good news and bad news with Colorado’s unemployment numbers. 

The bad? Initial claims reached a record-setting 104,217 in just one week, ending April 11, and more than double the prior week. The good: That means the computer systems and processes are working more smoothly at the state Department of Labor and Employment.

With so many businesses reeling from coronavirus shutdowns that began in mid-March, the filing system stuttered until technology upgrades were made and applicants were asked to apply on different days based on the first letter of their last names. 

In those four weeks, some 231,610 out-of-work Coloradans filed for unemployment benefits. During the Great Recession, the highest week topped out at 7,749 claims in Colorado, according to the labor department.

And the numbers are expected to continue to climb.

“After the week of the 16th, when we reprogrammed our online system, that’s when we were able to experience more stability,” Cher Haavind, the agency’s deputy executive director and spokeswoman said Thursday during a call with reporters. “… With the ability to take those (federal pandemic unemployment assistance) claims very soon, we’ll see it continue to go back up.”

Haavind was talking about two things made possible by the $2 trillion federal stimulus package to aid Americans: the $600 in additional unemployment pay for workers impacted by COVID-19 and the ability for gig workers and independent contractors to apply for unemployment benefits for the first time. Those workers usually aren’t eligible because they don’t pay for unemployment insurance. State officials estimated that there could be 370,000 gig workers in Colorado.

COVID-19 IN COLORADO

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And the federal payments should start “in the next day or two,” Haavind said Thursday.

The delay in paying out federal unemployment money is due to the state’s antiquated filing system that couldn’t handle the new load. Colorado, along with several other states, were on systems running on the decades-old software program known as COBOL. (“It’s actually odd that we’re still using a language from the ‘80s,” Haavind said.) Prior to the coronavirus outbreak, the state labor agency was already working on modernizing the system and expects it to be fully operational shortly. 

“We’re going to be leveraging the new technology platform, which is a modern technology not COBOL-based, for pandemic unemployment assistance,” said Jeff Fitzgerald, the agency’s unemployment insurance director.

Those who qualify for the extra $600 a week will be paid when the system is in place. Payments will be retroactive to March 29, when the CARES Act passed. 

The money is in addition to state unemployment compensation. For the week that ended on April 11, the unemployment benefits paid out by Colorado was $62 million, up from $29.8 million the prior week. During the Great Recession in 2009-10, $19 million was paid out on an average weekly basis. The highest monthly total was May 2009, paying out $102.8 million.

TODAY’S UNDERWRITER

Nationwide, initial unemployment claims were at 5,245,000 for the week ending April 11, down 1,370,000 from the prior week. That means 22 million Americans have filed for unemployment in the four weeks since President Donald Trump declared a national emergency.

While Front Range counties saw the highest numbers of unemployment claims — Adams, Arapahoe, Denver, El Paso and Jefferson counties made up 57% of all county-level claims for the week that ended March 28 — Colorado’s mountain communities saw the largest weekly increases. 

“Summit County had the largest relative increase — 1,231 claims versus a weekly average of 13 in 2019. That translates to a 95-fold increase,” said Ryan Gedney, senior economist with the state labor department. “Grand, Routt, Gilpin and Chafee counties rounded out the top five.”

Even as more workers file for unemployment, some companies this week said they were hiring more people in the Denver area.

On Thursday, Amazon said that it needs another 1,000 workers for its distribution centers in Colorado. That’s on top of more than 3,600 employees Amazon hired in the past few weeks, according to the company, who joined 4,000 existing workers statewide.

Colorado Gov. Jared Polis and other local elected officials get a guided tour of the Amazon fulfillment center on August 29, 2019 in Thornton, Colorado. The center opened in June 2018 and spans 855,000 square feet with more than 1,500 employees. (Kathryn Scott, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Fidelity Investments is hiring 200 new employees in Colorado, though mostly in Denver, as part of a decision to accelerate the hiring of 2,000 new workers nationwide. The company, which currently has 900 workers in the state, said it is looking for financial consultants and customer service representatives to help clients with retirement plans and other financial services.

While the requirement to look for another job while on unemployment has been waived during COVID-19, the state’s job portal still has new job postings this week at connectingcolorado.com.

Resources for workers

Unemployment pay

Sick leave

  • Workers in eligible industries (leisure and hospitality; food services; child care; nursing homes and more) can get up to four days of paid sick leave. The FAQs
  • The federal Family and Medical Leave Act provides sick-time leave, though not necessarily payment, for eligible workers affected by the coronavirus. Take up to 12 weeks of unpaid time off and be entitled to job reinstatement.

Employers

  • Opt for the state’s Work-Share program to encourage workers to return. Workers with reduced hours (between 10%-40%) can qualify for a percentage of the lost pay.
  • Seasonal workers or union employees who plan to return to their employer are eligible. Called “job attached,” this helps out seasonal workers who often stop working for up to 16 weeks.

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