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Colorado’s unemployment rate hit 4.5% in March; $600 federal payments for jobless begin next week

The unemployment rate in March was 4.5%, up from 2.5% in February. Labor officials think $50 million a week will be paid to unemployed workers in Colorado.

The Fox Theater in Montrose is closed as life in Colorado shuts down in response to the new coronavirus. (William Woody, Special to The Colorado Sun)
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Colorado’s unemployment rate hit 4.5% in March as tens of thousands of people in the state lost their jobs because of the new coronavirus.

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That’s the highest level the state’s unemployment rate has been since August 2015.

In February, Colorado’s unemployment rate was 2.5%.

The Colorado Department of Labor and Employment said the national unemployment rate increased nine-tenths of a percentage point in March to 4.4%. The last time Colorado’s monthly unemployment rate exceeded the U.S. rate was in June 2005.

Colorado’s March rate, which is based on the pay period that includes the second week of the month, likely doesn’t account for many of job losses blamed on coronavirus-related shutdowns.

Many of those losses happened later in March and earlier this month. The labor department said the numbers provide “an initial estimate of Colorado’s employment situation during the first stages of the COVID-19 outbreak within the state.”

Ski areas were shut down on March 14. Restaurants and bars were ordered closed to in-person dining on March 16. And on March 25, the governor issued a statewide stay-at-home order, which is in effect until April 26. Colorado’s oil and gas industry also is grappling with job losses related to an international trade dispute that has sunk oil prices.

Since March 15, some 231,610 out-of-work Coloradans have filed for unemployment benefits. And the numbers are expected to continue to climb.

More than 100,000 unemployment claims were filed with the state labor department last week.

Joe Barela, executive director of the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment, announced that gig workers, independent contractors and the self-employed can begin applying for unemployment benefits on Monday at coloradoui.gov.

This group of workers doesn’t typically qualify because they don’t pay for unemployment insurance. But they’re included for the first time because the CARES Act, which provides $600 a week in federal pandemic unemployment assistance. Applicants will need to provide their 2018 or 2019 tax return to apply.

Others already receiving unemployment pay because of coronavirus shutdowns will also receive the $600 whether they lost their job or saw reduced hours. That’s on top of the unemployment benefits they were already collecting.

“No action is required for this additional $600 weekly benefit for those already receiving benefits under the unemployment system,” Barela said.

The federal payment will be retroactive to March 29. 

The labor department had been working on modernizing its computer system to handle unemployment claims before COVID-19 hit. But it tapped the Office of Information Technology and vendor Deloitte to speed up the process and get the filing system ready for Monday’s new round of claimants. State officials estimate that there could be 370,000 gig workers in Colorado.

MORE: Small businesses in Colorado’s high country say the federal coronavirus stimulus has left them empty handed

The agency also doubled its call center staff in the past few weeks and is opening a new call center to handle questions related just to the federal stimulus package and pandemic benefits. The call center includes 80 additional agents working remotely for Florida-based Conversion Calls, which competed with seven other companies to win the contract. 

Two town halls are scheduled for Monday to address questions from people who have had trouble filing for unemployment or getting their questions answered. The first is set for 9:15 a.m. and will be in English, the other is at 11:30 a.m. and will be in Spanish.

“We know we will continue to see claims grow,” Barela said. “Now with the additional availability of benefits to workers who have never been covered before, we don’t know what that demand will look like, but we want to assure you that we are doing everything possible to make sure that everyone who is entitled to unemployment insurance benefits during these times has access to apply for those benefits and receive those benefits.”

The federal pandemic funds also extend a worker’s 26-week state unemployment compensation for an additional 13 weeks — for a total of 39 weeks. The federal government is covering the extra 13 weeks of pay, plus the $600 weekly benefit, for up to four months. It won’t come out of the state’s unemployment trust fund, which employers pay into. That fund, which had $1.1 billion in it before the coronavirus impact, has $950 million as of a few days ago, said Ryan Gedney, senior economist with the state labor department.

In the four weeks that coronavirus has emptied out restaurants, ski resorts and other businesses, 231,610 Coloradans have filed for unemployment and the state has paid out more than $109 million in benefits. 

“I anticipate, as a baseline, that $50 million in weekly benefits is very possible, if not more,” Gedney said.

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