For many out-of-work Coloradans, life will change after Saturday.
That’s when the extra $600 in weekly unemployment benefits from the U.S. government ends in Colorado, even as many hotels, restaurants, bars and other businesses have not fully reopened due to coronavirus restrictions. As of July 11, Colorado has paid out $1.92 billion in this Pandemic Unemployment Compensation, or PUC. But there are roughly 227,300 Coloradans still unemployed, more than triple the number during the Great Recession.
That includes Stacey Kroner.
The Denver resident was furloughed in March and rehired in April when his employer Four Seasons Hotels got a Paycheck Protection Plan loan. But he was let go again in June, after the loan money ran out. Kroner, who’s grateful for the financial help, now hopes to start his own business.
“It definitely helped me and I’m sure it helped everyone who needed the $600,” said Kroner, who made more on unemployment than at his old job because of the federal benefit. “But even the regular unemployment portion I’ve been receiving has helped.”
As relief programs that have helped millions come to an end, the pandemic continues. The $600 in federal unemployment benefits was funded by the federal CARES Act, which also sent billions of dollars into the homes of Americans, from the $1,200 stimulus checks to the PPP loans for small businesses to retain workers. There’s general agreement that relief helped many Americans, but there’s debate about whether to extend the programs.
“(The federal benefits) certainly helped to achieve their intended effect of stabilizing income despite large unemployment losses during the worst of the shutdown,” said Chris Brown, director of policy and research at Common Sense Institute, a nonpartisan research organization in Greenwood Village that has followed the state’s related unemployment trends.
The state added 100,000 workers to the labor force in June, a recovery of about 37% of jobs lost between February and April. But coronavirus infections are on the rise, and new safety restrictions are being rolled out by Gov. Jared Polis.
But, Brown added, there’s still a lot of people out of work.
“I think that’s reflective of overall lower demand and businesses struggling to bring back customers,” he said. “There’s really two sides to this and policymakers are actively weighing these trade offs.”
Congress returned Monday to figure out what to do extending unemployment benefits. One effort, the $3 trillion HEROES Act, would extend unemployment benefits until January. Another one that would reduce the federal unemployment benefit is backed by Senate Republicans and is still in the works.
Colorado’s Democratic U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet proposed the Worker Relief and Security Act in May to tie the $600 payment to any change in the unemployment rate. But nothing appears close to getting passed, at least not before the weekend.
“I believe that it was a mistake for us to tie the expanded unemployment benefit to a certain date,” Bennet said in an email. “We need to continue the expanded unemployment benefit and gradually decrease it as the economy improves and unemployment drops to near pre-crisis levels — which is what my proposal would do.”
Money still available
The Colorado Department of Labor and Employment has been letting folks on unemployment know the $600 federal PUC benefit ends July 25. People who are still unemployed after July 25 will receive only regular state benefits, which average much lower than the $600 a week.
However, the state will continue to pay out all sorts of federal unemployment, including PUC, said Cher Haavind, deputy director of the Department of Labor.
Those federal benefits include:
- Pandemic Unemployment Compensation (PUC) — While this benefit ends July 25 in Colorado, workers who were late to claim the benefit may still be qualified if they were unemployed between March 29 and July 25. PUC pay is retroactive. Also, claimants typically file for benefits every other Sunday. For those who file on Aug. 2, they’ll still get that last week of PUC.
- Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation (PEUC) — For Coloradans who exhaust their regular 26 weeks of state benefits, PEUC provides an extra 13 weeks of regular unemployment pay. The state labor department is now contacting people whose regular benefits are ending to let them know an extension is available.
- Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) — PUA offers a weekly unemployment payment to gig workers, contractors and the self employed who don’t normally qualify for state benefits. The amount is based on past income. This is a federal benefit and ends Dec. 31.
“We all found ourselves in historically high unemployment and a very short period of time and so every additional benefit that was implemented by Congress has been helpful in making ends meet for hundreds of thousands of people in the state,” Haavind said. “We’ve never had additional benefits to this degree.”
Where to get help
In Grand Junction, the Mesa County Workforce Center ramped up its call center to help answer the influx of unemployment calls. Typically, the call center helps people find a job.
“We’re staffing up that call line, pulling other staff off from other projects and putting them on the call line in anticipation that we’re going to see a huge influx in phone calls from recipients wondering where that additional money is,” Mesa County Workforce Center Director Curtis Englehart said.
Workforce centers scattered all over the state have stepped in to help their communities as the state’s unemployment call center was overwhelmed. At one point, only 6% of callers got answers to their questions. The state department of labor recently rolled out a virtual agent technology from Google to handle simpler questions. It’s now scheduling appointments through August so callers get a call back instead of having to dial and redial the help line for hours.
But the workforce centers have stepped up to answer those questions and are now moving on as businesses reopen and workers return to regular jobs.
In Colorado Springs, the Pikes Peak Workforce Center set up a temporary site at 1049 North Academy Boulevard. Fifty computer workstations are arranged at a socially-distance-approved 6-feet apart and are available for job seekers in two-hour blocks, said Traci Marques, director of the workforce center targeting residents in El Paso and Teller counties.
“We’re allowing 30 people at a time to come in and use our computers for anything job-search related,” Marques said. “That gives the opportunity for those who are losing the benefits, on extended benefits or have lost their PUA dollars, they’ll be losing those to come in and really start doing some active job search activities.”
The center also had been handling mostly unemployment-related calls in recent months from residents who couldn’t get through to the state’s call center. But now, the temporary site is focused on finding a job.
“People are wanting to get back to work,” she said. “We’re really trying to make it easier for those on unemployment, especially those who are for the first time on unemployment, that they have access to the technology and a resource and someone to walk it through with them.”
The center moved its workshops and training online, and that’s a bonus for Coloradans even if you don’t live in the Pikes Peak region. Everyone who receives unemployment benefits must register with Connecting Colorado, a job database where companies post openings and the unemployed apply for them. Through that link, any job seeker can also register for a virtual workshop hosted by the Pikes Peak Workforce Center or any other workforce center statewide.
“The great thing with virtual platforms is you can be in a small town with a population of 400 and have access to the internet and you can take one of our workshops,” Marques said.
This story was updated at 10:40 a.m. on July 22 to clarify Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, the federal benefit available to gig workers, the self employed and others who don’t qualify for state benefits. The amount of PUA payments is based on a worker’s past income and is calculated similarly to those on regular unemployment. All workers eligible for PUA or regular unemployment received the extra $600, which ends July 25.
Colorado unemployment resources
- File a claim
- Don’t want to wait on hold? First-time claimants fill out this call back form
- Schedule an in-person appointment
- Never got or lost your PIN? Fill out this form
- Fix a date or backdate an existing claim: Fill out this form
- Request a payment: myui.coworkforce.com/Login/Index
- Change payment method: Start here
- Reopen a claim: Start here
- Ask a question at Dept. of Labor virtual town hall: colorado.gov/pacific/cdle/covid-19/town-halls
- Get help by phone for regular unemployment (expect a long wait): 303-318-9000 or 1-800-388-5515; Spanish: 303-318-9333 or 1-866-422-0402; Deaf or hard of hearing: 303-318-9016 or 800-894-7730
- For Pandemic Unemployment Assistance: File here or call 303-536-5615
- Request a payment every other week: 303-813-2800, 888-550-2800 or at myui.coworkforce.com/Welcome
- Rejected? Appeal online or call 303-318-9299 (FAQs on appeals)
- Didn’t get paid? File a wage complaint (More info here)
- Suspect fraud: Find credit agency contacts and other tips
- Search for a job: connectingcolorado.com, OnwardCO.org
- Frequently updated: coloradoui.gov