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What’s Working: Unemployment benefits for a year, $300 is the new $600 and how to get that call back

A weekly update on losing a job, finding a new one or hiring extra help.

Businesses in downtown Denver have been boarded up in the wake of recent protests against police violence. June 9, 2020. Larry Ryckman / The Colorado Sun
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Thanks for joining me on the second-ever What’s Working column (here’s the first one if you missed it). This is meant to be a useful resource for those who have lost a job, are trying to find one or are trying to hire someone.

Tamara Chuang, writer for The Colorado Sun.

Lots of news this week for anyone having trouble finding a job (and you’re not alone — there are about 280,800 people in Colorado getting some form of unemployment, as of Aug. 1).  The main FYI: If your regular benefits have run out, there’s more available. Here’s the rundown:  

  1. Regular benefits — Typically 55% of one’s regular paycheck and payment lasts 26 weeks. Exhaust those and move on to…
  2. PEUC, or Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation. This extends regular benefits for 13 weeks, courtesy of the federal government. It requires filing a new form and the state is reaching out to folks whose benefits are ending. After those are exhausted, then it’s on to… 
  3. SEB or state extended benefits, which are ramping up this week to offer another 13 weeks of unemployment pay. No need to do anything to switchover, the state will contact you.

Count it up and you’re at 52 weeks. If that seems like a lot, some Colorado folks drawing unemployment during the Great Recession were eligible for benefits (mostly federal) for up to 99 weeks!

Nothing has changed for self-employed and gig workers. The Pandemic Unemployment Assistance benefits don’t end until Dec. 31.

The $400 $300 weekly bonus

More money may be on the way from the federal government. Remember the extra $600 paid to anyone on unemployment until the program ended July 25? The most viable replacement is a $300 weekly bonus funded by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. 

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It’s controversial because it’s linked to an executive order from President Donald Trump that asked states to chip in $100 and make it an even $400 weekly benefit, but that’s looking unlikely in Colorado. Congress is the branch that handles federal budgets but Congress has not come any closer to approving an extension or replacement to the $600. And on Thursday, the Senate recessed till Sept. 8 with no new coronavirus relief deal.

This Lost Wages Assistance Program is also controversial because the money comes from FEMA’s disaster relief fund, which helps folks out after a hurricane, tornado, flood or other natural disaster. 

But with money available, Gov. Jared Polis has applied for the FEMA funds, a spokesman from his office confirmed. Now, the state needs to wait and find out how much it qualifies for. That could take several weeks, said Cher Haavind, deputy director of the Colorado Office of Employment and Labor.

Then the state would need time to reprogram its computer system to handle the new payout, which could take another couple of weeks.

Don’t forget: Taxes

No, income taxes aren’t due just yet (unless you forgot to pay last year’s tax by the delayed July 15 deadline).

But all that unemployment relief is still taxable — a good point passed along by a Sun reader.

The weekly $600 (PUC), for example, is subject to 10% federal withholding tax, so if you opted into the state handling the tax, your PUC check was $540. But if you didn’t have taxes automatically withheld, you’ll need to pay quarterly (the next deadline is Sept. 15) or save up for next April’s tax bill when you might end up with an underpayment penalty.

Here’s a Forbes story that dives deeper into unemployment taxes. 

The 411 on getting help online

If you’re unemployed and are still having issues with your claim, please try the unemployment office’s virtual agents again. The virtual agents have even more authority to dig into personal files, such as helping people reset a PIN as of this week (“one of the most frequently requested services coming into the call center,” Haavind said). 

According to the labor department, less than 15% of the 430,000 requests coming in to these nonhuman helpers require scheduling a call back. 

And because there have been cancellations, there are appointments available for early September. (If you hear otherwise, let me know.)

So if you haven’t tried them out and you’re waiting for a call back, you should see if the new virtual help at coloradoui.gov can solve your problem.

The Colorado Department of Labor and Employment partnered with Google on a virtual agent in July 2020 to handle questions about unemployment. (Screenshot)

Job of the week

I like the idea of a job-of-the-week post, but this isn’t meant to be a job board. Plenty of other companies focus on that as their core business (and if you’re hoping to share top jobs, please talk to Carol Wood at underwriting@coloradosun.com).

This week, let me point to a massive job resource: Colorado’s Labor Market Information, or LMI Gateway. It’s not the easiest thing to use, but it’s the source of data for Colorado’s labor department, which uses it to find the fastest growing industries based on who’s hiring. Here are the five top industries that appear to be hiring, as of Aug. 13: 

  1. Health Care & Social Assistance, 10,841 job openings (scroll to “Advertised” links at bottom); Average wage: $54,219
  2. Retail Trade, 9,172 jobs; Average wage: $32,191
  3. Accommodation and Food Services, 9,408 jobs; Average wage: $32,364
  4. Professional, Scientific, and Technical Services, 5,531 jobs; Average wage: $87,629
  5. Administrative and Support, Waste Management/Remediation Services, 4,055 jobs; Average wage: $58,550

The Q&A

Readers, my inbox is open! Ask me a question related to jobs, work and unemployment in Colorado and I’ll try to get it answered. Here’s one, edited for clarity:

Q: I am desperately trying to find employment in the food industry (54 with 20+ years experience) that has already been ravaged. For every job out there, it seems like youth is chosen over age and experience. Of course I can’t prove this. And I am not a litigious person. I just NEED to work. ~James

A: Age is a protected category so there are definitely legal options available, if you choose to go that route. Interestly, older adults have been the fastest growing cohort among restaurant workers, according to the National Restaurant Association. That was pre-COVID-19, though.

Restaurants are struggling with reopening, largely because it’s difficult to meet mandated safety measures indoors and that’s exacerbating returning to work for many restaurant employees. But that’s not a good excuse to discriminate.

According to the Department of Labor, which says it cannot intervene in disputes, you can contact the Colorado Civil Rights Division at 303-894-2997 or 800-262-4845; or the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission at 303-866-1300 or 800-669-4000.

It’s a topic worth my looking into so if you’ve got a story to share about the topic, let me know. I would also love to hear from employers about how they handle this.

Well, that’s all the words that fit this week. As long as readers are interested in the topic, I’ll keep it going. So share your work issue, hiring plans or other job-related advice or comment at tamara@coloradosun.com and check back in a week for What’s Working. ~ Tamara

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