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What’s Working: Ugh, what a week for Colorado restaurants, small businesses and the already unemployed

Thousands are facing unemployment again as at least 20 Colorado counties implement new COVID-19 restrictions, the end of one unemployment program, plus new jobs, updates on fraud, holds and more

A table at the Afrikan Bar & Grill in Lakewood, Colo., one of two restaurants that Theodora and Sylvester Osei-Fordwuo own and operate on Tuesday, Sept. 22, 2020. The business they had built up gradually over the year dropped off precipitously, by 80 or 90 percent in their spacious Lakewood restaurant. (Joe Mahoney, Special to The Colorado Sun)
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It’s been a rough week for much of Colorado’s workforce. As the spike in COVID-19 cases caused 15 counties to impose new business restrictions on Friday, the most affected industries are bracing for thousands of new layoffs.

For those just tuning in, the latest clampdown for counties in the new red zone means no more indoor dining at restaurants, no drinking at bars after 8 p.m. and capacity restrictions down to 10% at gyms, offices and non-critical manufacturers.

And then on Friday, we also learned that the extra State Extended Benefits for those on unemployment is ending four weeks early. (More on that below.)

COVID-19 IN COLORADO

The latest from the coronavirus outbreak in Colorado:

  • MAP: Cases and deaths in Colorado.
  • TESTINGHere’s where to find a community testing site. The state is now encouraging anyone with symptoms to get tested.
  • VACCINE HOTLINE: Get up-to-date information.

>> FULL COVERAGE

Closing to indoor dining last spring had already taken its toll on the restaurant industry. The Colorado Restaurant Association estimates the state has lost nearly 30% of its workforce, or 65,000 jobs since last year. Based on a recent member survey, restaurants said that if they were forced to stop indoor dine-in service, they’d be out of business in one month.

“We will see more layoffs this week. That is certain,” Laura Shunk, a spokeswoman for the association, told me a day after the new restrictions were announced. “But we don’t yet know the magnitude. If we really do lose 24% of the restaurants in these counties when this goes into effect, we’d be talking tens of thousands of jobs lost.”

Those numbers jibe with the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data known as the Current Employment Statistics. Back in December, the state’s non-farm workforce totaled 2.83 million people. The fastest-growing industry that month was Food Services and Drinking Places, which employed 239,400 people. It’s since fallen 13% to 208,800 jobs in September. 

But dig deeper and you’ll find that of those 2.83 million jobs, 117,300 jobs were in full-service restaurants in December. That number had dropped 17.3% to 97,000 in September — or by 20,300 jobs. Who knows what November will bring?

As one restaurateur told me this week, “Yeah, it’s depressing,” said Bob Starekow, owner of Silverheels Bar & Grill and Kemosabe Sushi & Sake in Frisco. “The thought of losing all of your neighborhood hangouts is really a bummer for our society.”

Newly or longer-term unemployed workers can find resources in this past column, including groups that offer help with rent, utilities and other bills. And there’s a list of resources for those having trouble paying the rent or who are facing eviction in this story. Read on (and read the What’s Working archive) for what has been happening with unemployment benefits all year.

For Coloradans who can afford to help out, the restaurant industry shares these opportunities:

“Consider what you’d lose if you lost your favorite restaurants and do everything you can to help them get to the other side,” said Sonia Riggs, the restaurant association’s CEO. “And follow the public health guidelines: avoid gatherings, wear a mask, wash your hands. This industry’s survival is really predicated on us getting these numbers down as fast as possible and reopening.”

Have other suggestions? Email me and I’ll get it on the list.

FREE WEBINAR: Jon Schallert, a Longmont-based consultant for the restaurant and retail industry, is hosting two free seminars on Monday for businesses searching for new revenue during the pandemic. >> Sign up

So long SEB, hello “Polis stimulus payment”

In the bizarro world of COVID, we are now losing a special unemployment benefit just as more people are losing their jobs.

I’m talking about the State Extended Benefits, which offered an extra 13 weeks of payments after one used up their 26 weeks of regular unemployment and after one exhausted an additional 13 weeks of Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation, or PEUC. 

In other words, this is how it worked:

Regular unemployment (26 weeks) => PEUC (13 weeks) => SEB (13 weeks)

But now you can delete that last 13 weeks. Why? This is because the rate of Coloradans without a job compared to those with one had been declining in recent weeks — last week excluded. During the week of Nov. 7, the rate dropped below 5% for the first time since May 9, and triggered Colorado getting booted from the SEB program. 

As those on SEB know, this benefit provides an extra 13 weeks of unemployment pay. 

While PEUC and SEB were going to end on Dec. 26 because they’re funded by the CARES Act, at least 16,000 people currently on SEB felt some relief that this payment would last through the end of the year.

It now ends on Nov. 28 and the state is required to let folks know the program is ending.

The extra frustrating news is that the latest COVID restrictions will surely bump that unemployment rate higher in the weeks to come. But Colorado can’t rejoin that program for 13 weeks, because the federal rules require a 13-week pause.

Here are your options if you are on SEB or are were about to receive it: 

  • Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) — Normally reserved for gig workers and the self-employed, this provides 39 weeks of unemployment benefits. Those on regular unemployment who haven’t used up 39 weeks yet may qualify. Good news here: The 13 weeks of PEUC don’t count toward the 39 weeks. But if you’ve been paid for the 26 weeks of regular unemployment plus the 13 weeks of SEB, you’re out of luck. The state will notify folks about whether they are eligible for this PUA benefit.
  • The $375 “Polis Stimulus Payment” — This one-time payment from the state of Colorado’s emergency fund will be mailed starting Dec. 1. If you’re getting a check, you should have received a message or call from the Department of Labor last week. About 430,000 people are eligible — but 49,000 folks are not. Those not eligible earned more than $500 a week while on unemployment. You can check your eligibility at coloradoui.gov by typing “Polis check” in the chat box.

MORE: Dip in Colorado unemployment rate triggers loss of federal benefits, just as new restrictions hit workers

HEY PUA FOLKS: You get 39 weeks and that’s it. There is no extension available and no “escalated unemployment benefits,” as one reader asked. PUA payments end on Dec. 26.

Latest Colorado jobs report

Even before several counties hit the new red zone, Colorado’s first-time unemployment had started to rise. The number of folks filing for the first time was up 23% for the week ending Nov. 14 from a week earlier. 

Those are likely to be higher for the next few weeks because everyone expects the new jobless claims to shoot way up again due to the COVID restrictions. 

This may be the toughest time to find a job, so please share your luck with landing a response, an interview or even a job. According to the state’s job portal on Friday, there are still thousands of jobs available including:

  • 76,839 open jobs in Colorado
  • 25,439 “location neutral” jobs that let you work remotely

View them on connectingcolorado.com

Speaking of jobs: More at Monarch

Monarch Casino Resort Spa in Black Hawk is hosting a day-long job fair on Nov. 23. They need another 250 to 300 more employees. The jobs run the gamut, including higher-paying maintenance engineering jobs ($24 to $28) and cage banker ($15.75+ tips). Most are what you’d expect at a hotel and casino: food and beverage jobs, housekeeping and security. 

Non-tipped jobs pay more than minimum wage, include benefits and a free meal at every shift, said Erica Ferris, Monarch’s director of marketing. The Monday job fair is scheduled for 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. at the casino. The hotel is hiring on the spot and if you need it, Monarch will pay for your bus fare back to Denver.

“We hire only full-time team members,” Ferris added. “So that means our dishwashers have full benefits, they get medical benefits, everything. It doesn’t matter what position you take, if you work in engineering, if you’re a cashier, if you’re a plumber, if you’re a barista — you work full time.”

The job fair will have social distancing measures in place (the casino is in Gilpin County, currently in the yellow zone) As for COVID precautions, everyone entering the resort must take a health screening and get their temperature checked.

MORE JOBS: Fort Collins startup Laborjack is looking for gig workers to help the community with chores like moving, landscaping and other day labor. Base pay is $12 to $15 per hour (the company on Nov. 23 shared that they have actually upgraded the base pay to $15 to $20) before any tips. Started by Colorado State University students Blake Craig and Josh Moser in 2016, the company is hiring in Fort Collins, Boulder and Denver. 

DC and small business updates

As members of Congress head home for the Thanksgiving holiday, that means no new pandemic relief program was approved.

But there was some (not great) news this week impacting small businesses. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said he would allow several emergency Federal Reserve lending programs to expire without an extension, the Wall Street Journal reported. 

And the IRS said there’s a twist with those federal Paycheck Protection Program loans: Businesses can either have their loans forgiven or deduct expenses covered by the loan. But not both. “Since businesses are not taxed on the proceeds of a forgiven PPP loan, the expenses are not deductible,” said the IRS.

Colorado, meanwhile, continues to plug away at rooting for small businesses. Energize Colorado has launched a “Can Do Colorado” campaign to highlight companies that are being responsible and masking up to make their shops and businesses safe for customers. 

“The more we can spotlight businesses that are committed to COVID-safe practices and innovation, the more they can serve customers and keep our economy going,” said Wendy Lea, the organization’s CEO. “We have to get serious about being safe and reducing the spread of this virus but we cannot let our small business community go at it alone.”

The organization, which has received funding from the state’s share of CARES Act dollars plus private donations, expects to offer more small business grants and loans next year so stay tuned. It plans to announce more recipients of its $31 million program next month.

Unemployment fraud, holds and more

So much has happened this week that I’ll have to get back to the issue of the thousands of unemployment holds next week. 

As we’ve reported all along, there were hundreds of thousands of claims kicked out of the system because they triggered one of 18 anti-fraud measures. But the Department of Labor has always acknowledged that thousands of the cases may be legitimate. About 6,000 holds were released in September after the department relaxed one measure.

Haavind, with the department of labor, said this week that there are now “6,000 call-back requests tied to fraud holds.” Investigators have been going through each case, but also looking at cases that are held up for a single reason. She won’t say what that reason is but changes are coming. 

“We expect more than half of these will be released in the next 1-2 weeks,” she said.

For the most part, if your case is on hold and one of the issues cited is “program integrity,” then that means your case triggered an anti-fraud measure. Those folks need to call the PUA hotline at 303-536-5615 and ask for an investigator to look at the case. 

The state will then share a special Box.com link for people to upload their identification and other documents. Then a new wait begins. I’ve heard from folks who’ve waited just days and then saw their account cleared. Others have been waiting for weeks and are still waiting.

“There are so many variables that go into reviewing and removing or not removing a hold,” Haavind said. “The biggest issue here is that there is a misunderstanding in the public that as soon as they upload their documents they are reviewed. That is not the case.”

The process is just taking a lot longer than expected. More on this next week.

And one last update: Callbacks. The state began texting people to remind them of their scheduled callback. (And if this is you and you don’t need the appointment, here is how to cancel: Go to colorradoui.gov and type “cancel callback” in the chat box.) About 300 people canceled their calls, allowing folks further back in line to talk to a human sooner.

However, no-show rates for these scheduled calls are above 30%, Haavind said. “But we’re seeing openings for more slots continuously. We opened up 2,000 slots in December.”

Those callbacks are only for folks on regular unemployment. For those calling the PUA helpline, Haavind said wait times for the past two weeks have spiked to an hour from 10 minutes. 

“As a result, additional agents will be added next week to manage this increased need and keep wait times reasonable,” she said.

Thanks for hanging for another week of What’s Working. Help your fellow unemployed Coloradan by sharing your story about issues and whether they got resolved, or any available jobs and other resources for folks in need. Just email tamara@coloradosun.com. Hang in there everyone! ~tamara


What’s Working is a Colorado Sun column for readers navigating pandemic employment. Read the archive and don’t miss the next one. Get this free newsletter delivered to your inbox by signing up at coloradosun.com/getww.

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