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New Colorado unemployment claims double over two-week span as businesses under COVID restrictions shed jobs

Hotels and restaurants are the top industries affected by new job claims, as battered Department of Labor deals with more fraud and investigating cases on hold for weeks, months

A line of greenhouse buildings for dining use during the coronavirus pandemic serve customers for the Annette Restaurant at the Stanley Marketplace on Nov. 7, 2020, in Aurora, Colorado. (Kathryn Scott, special to The Colorado Sun)
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The number of newly out-of-work Coloradans has tripled since new COVID restrictions went into effect in mid-November. 

More than 32,000 workers filed a claim for regular benefits in the two weeks that ended Nov. 28, while another 21,600 self-employed or gig workers filed for pandemic benefits. That’s about double the number from the two weeks prior, and nearly triple the number from the two weeks before that.

Back on Nov. 17, Gov. Jared Polis introduced new coronavirus red-level restrictions aimed at avoiding a shutdown like the one imposed last spring. More than 20 counties hit the red level within days.

The restaurant industry warned that there would be layoffs and if more restaurants shutter because they’re unable to survive another round of closed dining rooms, the impact could be “tens of thousands of jobs lost,” Laura Shunk, a spokeswoman for the Colorado Restaurant Association, said in an interview at the time.

Last week, the top industries with new job losses were accommodation and food service, which made up 20.2% of all claims, according to the state Department of Labor and Employment. 

State struggles to keep up

The labor department has struggled to stay on top of managing claims and benefits, even failing to renew a critical domain name earlier this week. The agency has overseen the payouts of $6.3 billion since March 29. Two-thirds of that amount was paid from federal dollars. It hired new call center agents and outsourced support for pandemic claims to a third party.

The number of Coloradans on regular unemployment had been in decline since the spring peak, when 264,000 were seeking regular unemployment benefits. The number of continued claims reduced in September and October, with 79,121 still collecting regular benefits on Nov. 21. That was about 7,000 fewer than the week prior. 

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However, the declining numbers don’t account for those who’ve exhausted their regular claims and moved on to emergency pandemic benefits. Those numbers have been increasing. Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation, which extends regular benefits for 13 weeks, added 7,631 people in the same period. There were 66,806 on PEUC on Nov. 21. And the number of people who had exhausted PEUC was not shared by the agency.

Many people seeking answers have spent countless hours waiting to talk to customer support, while others have waited weeks and even months to schedule a call with unemployment agents. 

Thousands of unemployed workers haven’t been paid for months after their accounts were put on hold due to fraud over the summer. Scammers using stolen IDs were trying to make a grab for the federal unemployment dollars, which amounted to at least $600 a week through the end of July. 

While fraudulent claims continued into the fall, the labor department was dealt another blow in recent weeks. On Thursday, it adjusted the past number of claims from gig workers eligible for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance to 11,667 for the period between Sept. 27 and Nov. 7. The state previously had reported PUA claims in the period were 23,687 but “were revised down after a review and analysis of recent PUA activity was completed by CDLE,” the agency said in a statement.

Over the weekend, about 16,000 people who’d exhausted their regular unemployment benefits and had moved on to State Extended Benefits found their payments stopped. The benefits ended because of the state’s declining unemployment rate in early November. Another 59,000 who had hoped to move to that plan were in the same boat. 

On Wednesday, the state legislature passed a bill that could let Colorado return to the extended benefits program before it runs out of CARES Act funding at the end of the year. And Congress is now working on a bipartisan bill that would provide $300 in additional unemployment benefits to jobless Americans.


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