Unemployment filings in Colorado declined for the sixth straight week last week as an increasing number of businesses in the state reopen their doors after being shut down because of the coronavirus crisis.
The Colorado Department of Labor and Employment said on Thursday that 15,603 initial claims were filed last week by people normally eligible to collect benefits. That’s compared to 17,825 initial claims submitted the week before by so-called “regular” workers.
Another 6,635 self employed or gig workers filed for benefits last week. They are not normally eligible to collect unemployment aid, but under Congress’ coronavirus aid package they are during the pandemic.
In the 10 weeks since the coronavirus crisis began in earnest in Colorado, a total of 498,851 unemployment claims — including from both regular unemployment recipients and gig or self-employed workers — have been filed in Colorado.
The labor department’s call center has been inundated with inquiries. Even though it has quadrupled staff since early March, the volume has resulted in only 6% of calls getting answered. But on Thursday, the agency took more steps to address that high call volume, including announcing a partnership with Google to use technology to handle common questions and allow callers to sign up for a callback at a later time.
The agency’s lobby at 251 E. 12th Ave. in Denver also will reopen on June 1 for appointment-only meetings.
“It’s a lot of education on what’s required from the claimant — things from proper documentation, identification, questions around claim status,” said Cher Haavind, deputy executive director for the Department of Labor. “For a lot of them, the answers can be found online. But truly, as we’ve said before, when it comes to financial aid and assistance, people feel comforted speaking to somebody. And so our goal is to help get those claimants the information that they need.”
As businesses reopen, the labor department is seeing an increase workers who don’t want to return to their old jobs. Employers have submitted 1,100 job-refusal forms for employees who are refusing to return to work. Approximately 869 have been reviewed and 16% of those employees’ claims were denied so they can no longer receive unemployment benefits.
“Again, this is when a worker cannot provide adequate evidence that they are a member of a vulnerable population, are caring for a vulnerable dependent or have other issues that are preventing them from returning to work,” Haavind said.
The state also plans to reinstate a requirement for those on unemployment to look for a new job. The requirement was suspended as coronavirus closures began. But Jeff Fitzgerald, the state’s unemployment insurance director, added that work-search requirement will be a little different than before.
“We have also expanded how we’re defining work-search so it doesn’t just include applying for a job. It can include include enhancing your skills, it can include networking, utilizing services via our Workforce Centers,” he said.
Many of the new changes will begin June 1.
Unemployment benefits payouts in Colorado remain remain at record-high levels. Last week, the state distributed $95.3 million.
By comparison, $19 million in regular unemployment benefits were paid out on an average weekly basis during the height of the Great Recession.
Nationally, an estimated 2.1 million Americans applied for unemployment benefits last week despite the gradual reopening of businesses around the country, bringing the running total since the coronavirus shutdowns took hold in mid-March to about 41 million, the government said Thursday.
The U.S. unemployment rate was 14.7% in April, the highest since the Great Depression, and many economists expect it will near 20% in May.
In Colorado, the unemployment rate in April was 11.3%.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.