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Nearly 10% of Colorado’s workforce has filed for unemployment as coronavirus continues to pound economy

In the past five weeks, nearly 300,000 people have filed unemployment claims. In February, the state’s workforce was about 3.1 million.

La Merise is one of the many Cherry Creek North restaurants remaining open for takeout on March 22, 2020.(Eric Lubbers, The Colorado Sun)
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When the gates opened Monday in Colorado, 51,000 self-employed and gig workers and independent contractors rushed the new filing system to claim unemployment benefits. Not all made it through with the state confirming around 30,000 claims.

It’s the first time such workers were allowed to file a claim with the state Department of Labor and Employment. They’re eligible for $600 a week, thanks to funding from the $2 trillion federal coronavirus stimulus plan. They join an ever-growing number of traditional workers who have lost their jobs  — 67,334 for the week ended April 18 — as the coronavirus continues to ravage Colorado’s economy. 

The state now counts 298,944 unemployment claims since social-distancing measures and shelter-at-home orders began around five weeks ago. 

“We estimate that around 3.1 million Coloradans were employed in the month of February,” said Ryan Gedney, senior economist with the state labor department. “Therefore, those 300,000 initial claims would represent about 10% of Colorado’s pre COVID-19 employment base.”

The 300,000 doesn’t include self-employed or gig workers, which the state estimated could be around 370,000 people. Since they don’t pay for unemployment insurance, they can’t tap the state’s unemployment trust fund, which was reduced by about $95 million in a week and currently sits around $900 million. 

The filing system stood up to the rush of new users this week. But there were delays caused because of the growing number of folks on unemployment.

The number of those who requested their benefits payments on Sunday was so high that the digital file was “the largest single file we have ever had to transfer to the bank,” Cher Haavind, the agency’s deputy executive director and spokeswoman, said Thursday during a call with reporters. 

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Anyone who requested benefits payments between Sunday to Tuesday should see the payments by Friday, she said.

Another issue caused around 10,000 independent contractors to see delays. That group of gig workers had apparently made some money last year that required them to file a W-2 tax form, in addition to a 1099 form that most independent contractors submit. 

The law requires those workers to exhaust state benefits first — “even if it’s $2,500 in income in the last 18 months,” Haavind said.

“The good news,” she added, “is that for those who are truly self-employed 1099 workers that had no W-2 income, they were able to get in through the application. Application time was around 15 minutes to complete, and they are expecting their first benefit payment, which will include their $600 PUC, the pandemic unemployment compensation payment.”

The large number of dual-income applicants caused the labor agency to change its website to better explain what those workers need to do: apply for regular unemployment first.

TODAY’S UNDERWRITER

Haavind shared other tips to speed up the process of getting money into worker bank accounts:

  • Using direct deposit means getting paid faster. Otherwise, the state puts the money on a debit card, which must be issued by a bank.  
  • However, the system defaults to debit cards. So, 24 hours after submitting a claim, pandemic claimants need to go back into their account and select direct deposit. 
  • The system uses Experian to verify a user’s identity — it’s not for a credit check. If you opt out of Experian, that will delay your payment, since the labor agency now must use alternative means to identify applicants.
  • Check your spam folders for communication from the Department of Labor. The email address is cdle_ui-alerts@state.co.us

The state has paid out close to $166 million in unemployment benefits in the past three weeks, Gedney said. On average, that’s $400 per claimant. Add in the $600 federal pandemic bonus and that puts a lot of lower-wage earners making more than they would at the job they no longer have.

And that’s causing a problem for employers who are trying to ramp up again, said Tony Gagliardi, state director for the NFIB organization that represents 7,000 small businesses in Colorado. 

“You’re telling me somebody could actually make more money not working,” said Gagliardi, who’s heard this complaint from members. “It’s the philosophy of it that’s not sitting well.”

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This could hurt employers who received Payment Protection Program loans, a federal pandemic aid package aimed at small businesses. The loan of up to $10 million becomes 100% forgivable if the employer hires back its workers and uses at least 75% of the loan money on payroll within the first eight weeks of the loan. But if the workers won’t come back, that’s a problem.

“One thing that should be considered, is if I (as an employer) attempted to hire you back because I took the paycheck loan but you chose not to come back, I should be able to document the fact that I tried. It should not count against me,” he said.

Haavind said the state labor department is looking into issuing new guidance since “this would be considered a job refusal if you have a job offer and instead you choose to stay on unemployment.” 

“For now, just know that this is something we’re hearing from employers. It doesn’t work well for anyone — the worker, the system or the employer,” she said. “We’re working on educating our claimant community, who maybe don’t understand the consequences of that.”


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