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What’s Working: Will Colorado become the nation’s precedent for extended unemployment benefits?

Plus: More small business grants, a D.C. update and how to move to PUA

The sign on the Paramount Theater in downtown Denver on August 24, 2020. (Eric Lubbers, The Colorado Sun)
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In the potpourri of Colorado unemployment news this week, here’s what happened: 

What a newsy week! 

The biggest question though for many still unemployment is what is happening to extended benefits? And maybe the bigger question is, will you still get them? Of course, the answer is it depends.

COVID-19 IN COLORADO

The latest from the coronavirus outbreak in Colorado:

  • LIVE BLOG: The latest on closures, restrictions and other major updates.
  • MAP: Cases and deaths in Colorado.
  • TESTING: Here’s where to find a community testing site. The state is now encouraging anyone with symptoms to get tested.
  • STORY: How many Coloradans need to get vaccinated to reach coronavirus herd immunity? It’s complicated.

>> FULL COVERAGE

The quick summary: Colorado’s eligibility for extended benefits started when the state’s insured unemployment rate rose above 5% and likewise, ended when it fell below 5% on Nov. 7. That cut 16,000 people off the 13-week SEB program, and now prevents the 66,806 people on federal pandemic emergency compensation, or PEUC as of Nov. 21, from moving to SEB after they use up their federal benefits.

Thing is, these 82,000 people weren’t counted in the calculation that triggered Colorado to leave the extended benefits program (read the explanation here). However, the state legislature passed Senate Bill 2 on Wednesday to count those people. So now, the state will use the total unemployment rate, or TUR.

But it may be too late. Once a state drops out of the program, it can’t rejoin for 13 weeks even if its unemployment rate increases. The new law will help the state avoid exiting early in the future if federal aid is available. But whether Colorado can rejoin today and pay extended benefits retroactively is uncertain.

The governor’s office and the state labor department asked the U.S. Department of Labor for guidance several days ago. 

On Friday, a federal Department of Labor spokesperson said the agency is “reviewing CO’s proposal to determine if it is permissible under federal law.” 

Is there precedent?

Before SEB ended for out-of-work Coloradans, folks on unemployment could collect up to 52 weeks of unemployment — that’s 26 of regular unemployment, 13 weeks of PEUC and 13 of SEB.

During the Great Recession, Colorado and other states paid up to 99 weeks of unemployment benefits, thanks to extensions from Congress. People who hit the limit were called “99ers” and several news organizations wrote about their plight during the recession that lasted for a couple of years.

But back in the Great Recession, the TUR trigger kicked in faster than the insured unemployment rate trigger, said Lauren Bauer, a fellow in economic studies at the Brookings Institution and part of The Hamilton Project. She’s been tracking extended benefits closely.

“As we’ve written, this recession is unusual in recent memory because the insured unemployment rate spiked so quickly,” Bauer said in an email. “This meant that states did not realize or think they needed to act on the TUR trigger until, like in (Colorado), it was too late.”

Every state has triggered the extended benefits in the pandemic except South Dakota. But at least 17 others besides Colorado have become ineligible after their unemployment rates fell below 5%, according to data from the U.S. Department of Labor. Several have adopted TUR in the past few months, but mainly to avoid what happened in Colorado.

Bauer said that she doesn’t remember a state being able to hop back onto extended benefits before the 13-week waiting period. “But I would be very surprised if the (Department of Labor) weren’t willing to work with (Colorado) to resolve this issue,” she said.

I guess that means if Colorado gets the Department of Labor’s approval, we will become the precedent. 

Current alternative: PUA

Those who’ve exhausted their benefits can still apply to Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, or PUA, which is normally for those who are self-employed or gig workers. One is eligible if they haven’t used up 39 weeks of benefits (the 13 weeks of PEUC don’t count) and self certify that their unemployment is due to COVID-related reasons.

The department of labor also has the application on its site at  cdle.colorado.gov/unemployment/extended-benefits (press the blue bar that says “State Extended Benefits” to open and find the PUA application link).

On the Colorado Department of Labor’s site, select the “State Extended Benefits” blue bar to reveal the instructions and link to filing for PUA benefits. (Screenshot)

Cher Haavind, the department of labor’s deputy director, said that the agency has notified those who’ve lost SEB or who will exhaust PEUC benefits by Dec. 19 that they should apply for PUA.

If this has alarm bells going off in your head because you’re worried it will set off a fraud alert for having two accounts, rest assured it won’t. I asked Haavind this specifically after a reader asked.

“There should not be a concern with being accused of fraud by having both a claim for UI and PUA,” she said. “We are aware of those who are eligible to receive benefits on both programs and this is not a factor in our fraud analysis.”

Those on regular unemployment will see “postponed” on their account, which is how the agency stops SEB payments. 

“We do not remove the money in case SEB becomes available at a later date,” she said.

Of course, this could be short-lived. PUA ends Dec. 26, unless Congress extends the program with a new COVID relief bill.

DC update

Speaking of Congress, a new federal COVID relief plan is in the works. According to a Friday report in the Associated Press, Congressional Republicans and Democrats are in “late-game negotiations in hopes of combining a relief package” of less than $1 trillion with a separate $1.4 trillion spending bill.

Pulling out the unemployment piece, there’s still talk about including a $300 per week bonus for those on unemployment. Congress would also have to extend the different benefits programs, like PUA and PEUC, which both end on Dec. 26.

U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, a Colorado Democrat on Friday said he’s pushing the Senate to focus on hard-hit small businesses, public health support, extend enhanced unemployment benefits and provide aid to local and state governments.

“At the end of the year when federal relief for student loans, evictions and enhanced unemployment are all set to expire. If that happens, Washington is going to throw 12 million people into a financial crisis all across America, including 122,000 people in Colorado,” he said. “All that is to say, failure is not an option. The Senate needs to pass a new relief package.”

Support for small business, restaurants

Several things happened during the state legislatures’ special emergency session this week, including providing $37 million in direct relief to small businesses. This was part of Senate Bill 1. Some of the aid translates into no annual liquor licensing fees for food establishments (and the Colorado Restaurant Association advises that if you paid it already, it’ll be refunded).

The small business relief program may provide up to $7,000 in a one-time payment to businesses that have lost at least 20% of their revenue since March 26, when the state’s first stay-at-home order was issued, write my colleagues John Frank and Jesse Paul in their story about the bill.

On Friday, Gov. Jared Polis announced that DoorDash donated $500,000 to a fund to help Colorado restaurants winterize their facilities. 

It’s part of the Colorado Restaurant Association Winter Outdoor Dining Fund. So far, 129 restaurants from all over the state have received grants of up to $10,000. Local eateries who could use the financial help need to apply by Dec. 11. And if you applied in the first round, those applications are moved to the new round. >> Details 

More business help:

  • Comcast has a marketing package for small businesses as part of its Comcast Rise awards. In the first round, 28 small businesses in Colorado were awarded packages that included consulting, media and production services. The second phase targets businesses that are majority owned by those who are Black, Indigenous or people of color. >> Details  
  • Deadline to apply for a small business grant from Arapahoe County is Dec. 11. Grants of $20,000 to $40,000 are available to businesses with annual revenues of less than $1 million in the county. >> Details

In other employment news…

The city of Denver is going up to $14.77 on Jan. 1, up from the current $12.85 an hour.

Mayor Michael Hancock considered delaying the increase because of the COVID disruptions but then decided to let it happen because “as our economy recovers – and we know it will – we don’t want to leave behind our minimum wage workers, who are often frontline workers in the pandemic and disproportionately women and people of color,” according to a statement from the Mayor’s office.

For the rest of the state: Minimum wage goes up to $12.32 on Jan. 1.

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That’s all I have time for this week. I wanted to leave you all with one more thing: The Colorado Sun covers so much about the state and our stories are free to read. If you wish you had read these unemployment stories earlier, you can! Just sign up for our free Sunriser newsletter, a curated snapshot of everything published at The Sun, at coloradosun.com/newsletters

For those with the means, becoming a member of The Sun today will get your dollars matched in December by the Colorado Media Project #newsCOneeds campaign. Just visit coloradosun.com/join. 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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