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Nearly 420,000 people have filed unemployment claims in Colorado since coronavirus crisis began

The claims continued to rise even as some businesses in Colorado begin reopening as restrictions on people's movement are eased

The sign at the movie theater in downtown Greeley on April 24, 2020, which closed amid the coronavirus outbreak. (John Frank, The Colorado Sun)
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Job losses caused by the new coronavirus outbreaks continue to pile up in Colorado, with another 41,000 people filing unemployment claims in the state last week.

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That brings the number of people in Colorado who have sought relief after losing their jobs since the crisis began — either temporarily to permanently — to nearly 420,000.

The 41,000 new claims are split between traditional workers and the self-employed, who don’t typically receive state unemployment benefits because they don’t pay into the insurance system. For the week ended May 2, there were 28,164 new traditional claims and 13,149 from self-employed workers. 

Both are a decline from last week’s count of regular and gig workers. But the numbers are still very high, said Ryan Gedney, senior economist with the state Department of Labor and Employment. 

“While the rate of increase in initial claims has slowed recently, keep in mind that these levels are still extremely high,” Gedney said. “Even if weekly initial claim volume drops to a five to 10,000 range, that will be similar to the weekly number of claims during the Great Recession.”

In April, the state paid out $315 million in unemployment benefits, or three times the amount it paid in May 2009 during the peak of the Great Recession.

The claims filed last week include 13,149 gig workers and self-employed people who are eligible for benefits under the $2 trillion aid package passed by Congress in March.

The claims continued to rise even as restrictions on people’s movements began to ease allowing some businesses in Colorado to reopen.

However restaurants and bars remain closed to in-person dining and there’s no clear date on when they could fully — or even partially — reopen. Theaters, concert venues and professional sports also remain on pause with no clear date of return.


In the past two weeks, employers reported about 150 cases of laid-off workers refusing to return to their old jobs. 

This can happen when employees don’t feel safe returning to the work site or may prefer to remain on unemployment because it pays better. The federal stimulus plan pays out an extra $600 to unemployed workers on top of regular unemployment benefits paid by the state.

In some instances, workers can refuse to return to their old job and still collect unemployment benefits, said Jeff Fitzgerald, the state Department of Labor and Employment’s unemployment insurance director, in a call Thursday with journalists. Those include: 

  • The work site isn’t complying with state social distancing procedures.
  • Employees have been identified to be part of a vulnerable population, such as an older worker, someone with serious underlying medical issues or a person who has COVID-19 or is caring for someone with the illness
  • The job isn’t “suitable,” or at the same level as the old job. An accountant, for example, could refuse a job offer as a dock worker, Fitzgerald offered as an example. 

Fitzgerald said that the state labor department reviews all the job-refusal cases. About 55 have been completed, with 50 allowed to stay on unemployment. Five were not and their benefits were suspended for refusing the job offer. 

“That’s very early returns on what we’re seeing for refusal to go back to a job,” he said.

Workers on unemployment must report job offers and any compensation for the week — both which could affect their benefit pay.

Another group of workers that qualify for the $600 a week in federal Pandemic Unemployment Assistance are independent contractors, gig workers and the self-employed. Since the benefits are part of the federal stimulus program and not the state’s, Fitzgerald said that those workers aren’t held to the same process of reporting job offers or any extra compensation. They are able to claim the benefit for up to 39 weeks.

Approximately 54,055 gig workers in Colorado have filed for the federal unemployment benefit, as of May 2. The state has paid out $65 million so far and will be reimbursed by the federal government. The state had estimated that there could be around 370,000 people who qualify as gig workers.

The state’s own unemployment trust fund shrunk to roughly $750 million, Gedney added. Before the pandemic began, the fund had about $1.1 billion. If it becomes insolvent, which it did during the Great Recession, the state will rely on federal loans to cover unemployment payments.

Nationally, nearly 3.2 million workers applied for unemployment benefits last week as the business shutdowns caused by the viral outbreak deepened the worst U.S. economic catastrophe in decades.

Roughly 33.5 million people have now filed for jobless aid in the seven weeks since the coronavirus began forcing millions of companies to close their doors and slash their workforces. That is the equivalent of one in five Americans who were employed back in February, when the unemployment rate was at a 50-year low of just 3.5%.

The Labor Department’s report Thursday suggests that layoffs, while still breathtakingly high, are steadily declining after sharp spikes in late March and early April. Initial claims for unemployment aid have now fallen for five straight weeks, from a peak of nearly 6.9 million during the week that ended March 28.

As businesses across the country have shut down and laid off tens of millions, the economy has sunk into a near-paralysis. Even as some businesses are beginning to reopen in certain states, factories, hotels, restaurants, resorts, sporting venues, movie theaters and many small businesses are still largely shuttered. Home sales are falling. Consumer confidence and spending are sinking.

The difference between the more than 30 million unemployment claims that have been filed in the past several weeks and the expected April job loss of slightly more than 20 million reflects differences in how the figures are compiled.


The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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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