Remember M. Hurley, who started a petition last month to bring attention to the plight of jobless Coloradans suddenly facing a massive bill from the unemployment office?
The M was Meggan, and I spoke to her the day after President Donald Trump told officials to stop negotiating a new relief plan until after the election (that really bummed Hurley out). A day later, life began looking up for her and thousands of other unemployed Coloradans who were overpaid unemployment benefits and then stuck with a repayment bill. Hurley’s bill was $13,969.
COVID-19 IN COLORADO
The latest from the coronavirus outbreak in Colorado:
- MAP: Known cases in Colorado.
- TESTING: Here’s where to find a community testing site. The state is now encouraging anyone with symptoms to get tested.
- STORY: A half-million Coloradans have already signed up for the state’s new coronavirus-tracking notification tool
On Thursday, the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment announced it would essentially forgive $1.4 million in overpayments affecting up to 9,000 Coloradans receiving benefits from the federal Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program, or PUA. Elsewhere in the country, Trump said he’d approve a new round of $1,200 checks for Americans, plus aid to airlines and small businesses, though there was no mention of more money for the unemployed.
But back to the state’s reversal of overpayments: A confusing PUA form had some gig workers not understanding that they needed to submit their net income — what they made after expenses and deductions — and not their total income. Total income, by the way, is how folks on regular unemployment file for benefits, so that’s what the unemployment office considered during its reversal. A new PUA form will be introduced Oct. 29.
“I would emphasize that this impacted 7%” of PUA claimants, said Jeff Fitzgerald, the state’s director of unemployment insurance. The other 93% “did not have issues with regards to understanding the forms and properly reporting their wages. But we have understanding about how the confusion was caused, and we’re taking steps to address it.”
Hurley, however, said there’s more to this a confusing application form. In her case, she said she was asked for business income and her income, which has some duplication. The unemployment office added both up to calculate her income. When she questioned the high amount, she was told not to worry about it. But when letters demanding repayments arrived, Hurley and many others found their unemployment benefits zeroed out.
“My biggest thing is it’s just wrong, it’s just wildly wrong. And to tell people to pay it back is incredible,” Hurley said. “And it’s unfortunate because we’re trying so hard to do the right thing and calling and trying to make sure everything’s OK. And we were told over and over it was fine. And then you just get hit with this bill, and I mean it’s been anywhere from $600 to one woman who had close to $20,000.”
If your overpayment was due to confusing forms and causes a financial hardship, the state will waive the overpayment. I’m still trying to get details of the process.
Those unable to qualify for the waiver can appeal. Typically, users must appeal within 20 days of the notice, but the state is allowing 180 days so folks affected by overpayments last spring can file an appeal — and even get some money back if they’d already paid it back or had the overpayment garnished from their benefits.
Fitzgerald said the appeals process is “running quite timely,” and about 88% of appeals are heard within two weeks. A decision is typically made within a few business days.
MIA: Thousands who haven’t claimed their $300+
There is so much money left in Colorado’s share of the federal Lost Wages Assistance program that the state extended the deadline for two more weeks. Those who qualify must certify by Oct. 24, a Saturday night.
An estimated 70,000 to 80,000 are eligible, but for some reason they haven’t certified for the money, which amounts to $300 a week for six weeks. This group is made up of people on regular unemployment who were paid at least $100 a week between July 26 to Sept. 5. If that’s you, go to coloradoui.gov and type “lost wages” into the chat box to certify that your unemployment is due to COVID-19 disruptions.
PUA folks are automatically qualified, as long as they also meet the $100 minimum and were unemployed during those six weeks. And if that’s you, you should already have been paid.
State officials are scratching their heads as to why so many workers haven’t claimed their share, which totals $1,800 for those who qualify for the entire amount.
As of Wednesday, the state paid $364 million of LWA to about 300,000 Coloradans. That leaves $189 million left of the $554 million allotted to Colorado by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
“We’d love to see citizens that are able to take advantage of this get this potentially $1,800,” Fitzgerald said. “I, by no means, want to return any of this money to FEMA.”
Some folks trying to certify may have had issues if their zip code begins with zero, but for the most part, certification issues have been fixed. The department is now calling and emailing those folks who are still eligible.
About that new online portal
Last week, What’s Working reported on the unemployment office’s new tool for people to send in tax forms, IDs and other personal documents. They’ll contact you — with a link.
This week, I heard from a reader who got the link but felt odd about sending her personal documents to some random link that was not going to the labor department.
Could she trust it?
Angela Pfannenstiel, with the state labor department, said here’s how to tell if the email is from the labor department: It will include the agency’s logo and a 16-word sentence that it’s an official communication from the department.
As for the link, it goes to Box.com, which uses “the strongest encryption cipher suite available starting with 256-bit AES” to encrypt the information during transit and in storage.
The Department of Labor rolled this out because people were sending their documents to random emails and fax machines. This way, everything is stored in one spot in a queue so investigators can get through accounts with payment holds and backdated claims.
Colorado’s unemployment numbers
I’ve been following the state’s staggering unemployment numbers each week since the pandemic toppled local businesses in the week ending March 21. This week, Ryan Gedney, the labor department’s senior economist, shared the contrast of how devastating this has been — and showing how much the labor department had to scramble.
Since mid-March, more than 734,000 people have filed for unemployment. About 75% were on regular unemployment, with the rest filing as PUA, the special federal benefit for gig workers.
Gedney says that’s more claims than were made in the entire six years before the pandemic kicked in!
The state has also paid out $5.7 billion in the same period, most of which came from federal funding.
“That is roughly equivalent to the amount of combined total benefit payments from 2009 to 2011 during the height of the Great Recession,” Gedney said. “The department estimates that 280,533 Coloradans received a UI payment in September.”
Unfortunately, we’re not close to being done, and I’ll keep writing this column until there’s no need for it. If you have a story to share about jobs, unemployment or work, let me know at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Need help with housing?
Affordable homes in Colorado, especially in the Denver area, are tough to find and seemingly, getting rarer. Last month, Westword reported that Denver’s average home price was $606,300. People who can afford to buy a house are doing so and pushing up prices because there just aren’t enough available homes.
On the flipside, Colorado apartment rents are down 1.9%, according to a Denver Post report.
Some private and nonprofit organizations are stepping up to help out during COVID. This week, FirstBank pledged $60 million to support Habitat for Humanity of Colorado and Impact Development Fund, two nonprofits focused on affordable housing. That translates into more homes they can build and preserve for low-income families.
Leah Dirks, FirstBank’s president of mortgage and consumer lending, said the bank also has several in-house affordable housing programs that include limited fee mortgage programs and down payment assistance.
“We also work with various land trusts to provide mortgages to their borrowers, which is unique and helps foster affordable housing in communities, because the buyer purchases the house, not the land, providing a sizable costs saving,” Dirks said in a statement.
In other housing-help news:
- The nonprofit Brothers Redevelopment and a few state agencies have launched Colorado Housing Connects. It’s a free service to Coloradans if you need financial assistance to pay rents or mortgages or get legal advice to prevent an eviction. >> 1-844-926-6632.
- The state Department of Local Affairs Division of Housing handed out $13.9 million to prevent evictions and offer homeless relief in September. The money is helping affordable housing projects in Salida, Brighton, Fort Collins, Loveland, Colorado Springs and Fremont County. >> Check out the projects
Small businesses, citizen resources
There are all sorts of small-business loans available, but if you’re a startup with no experience or revenues, it’s tough to get a loan from a traditional bank.
This week, I explored the niche of community development financial institutions. These are mission-minded lenders supported by the U.S. Department of Treasury and non-profit and private organizations.
One is Colorado Enterprise Fund, which focuses on small business loans. In 2018, CEF loans helped create or retain 1,981 jobs. Late or missed payments, limited collateral or a low credit score doesn’t automatically disqualify one from a loan, said Ceyl Prinster, its CEO.
“We’ll look at whether this is the result of medical issues or divorce or something that’s a one-time thing. Or is it a chronic disregard for financial obligations?” she said. “We can take a little bit more of an individualized approach on that and discount for those factors.”
There are 19 CDFIs in Colorado (here’s a list) so check them out if you are considering starting your own business.
PPP Update: The federal Paycheck Protection Plan program that helped more than 100,000 small businesses in Colorado debuted a forgiveness form for those with loans below $50,000. I’ll explore this more in a future story but if you have PPP questions, ask me!
Help for the unhelped: The city of Denver added $1 million to its relief fund to help Denver residents who’ve lost their jobs. The Left Behind Worker Fund was created out of concern for those who don’t qualify for state or federal aid. That’s an estimated 17,000 immigrants, some of whom are undocumented, who were left out of public relief efforts, according to the city. >> Apply here
That’s it for this week’s What’s Working. I’d like to give Jeff Fitzgerald a special thank you for his efforts. He’s the state’s director of unemployment insurance and someone who has quickly responded to questions from readers. He is moving on to a job with the U.S. Department of Labor, so we wish him the best.
As always, email me at email@example.com your stories, questions, tips and concerns so we can figure this out as a community. And spread the word about this column. I write it for you (especially you, who has read all the way down to this point). ~tamara
- What’s Working: One third of Colorado’s share of “Lost Wages” still unclaimed, plus a new portal to the unemployment office
- What’s Working: Thousands of fraud holds lifted for Colorado unemployed, while more face pricier health insurance
- The $300 “Lost Wages” bonus begins, Amazon is hiring like crazy and answers from Colorado’s labor department
- What’s Working: Extra $300 unemployment benefit gets a start date and how Colorado overpaid $40 million in jobless aid
- What’s Working: The situation with PUA benefits. Plus, why action is needed to get extra payments.
- What’s Working: Spanish-speaking virtual agents, extra $300 weeks approved and a new small business fund
- What’s Working: Why it takes two months to get a callback on unemployment: 25% of scheduled calls are “no shows”
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