This was an extra bad week for Coloradans who lost their jobs at the start of the pandemic.
We just ended week 39 — the maximum number of weeks one is eligible for unemployment pay currently. Last spring, ski and resort workers were the first to be impacted by Gov. Jared Polis’ March 14 order to close ski resorts, and were joined within days by restaurant and bar employees as in-person dining was banned across the state.
But benefits will run out on Dec. 26 for most people anyway, unless Congress moves on a new COVID-19 relief plan.
The latest Colorado Department of Labor and Employment data, which is a few weeks old, shows as of Nov. 28:
- 90,867 people on regular unemployment (up to 26 weeks available with no deadline)
- 63,694 on Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (ends after 39 weeks or Dec. 26)
- 70,031 on Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation (ends after 13 weeks or Dec. 26)
- 16,000-ish on State Extended Benefits (ended Nov. 28)
- ? — The number of people who’ve already used up their benefits but are still unemployed (nobody seems to know this number)
Add up all those who will have lost or will lose their benefits in two weeks, and that’s almost 150,000 people, as of last month.
If we continue counting into December, which we will when data is available, there will be another 17,232 PUA workers who filed a new claim last week, plus the unknowns and the countless thousands who will have used up their 26 weeks of regular benefits by then.
The number of jobless Coloradans continues to rise, with the restaurant industry feeling the greatest pain after new red-level restrictions went into effect for several counties last month (See the new numbers here).
But it’s not all bad news. Keep reading.
First: An update. Colorado’s State Extended Benefits program abruptly ended last month because our unemployment rate fell below 5% on Nov. 7. As previously reported, it didn’t have to be that way. And the state legislature did something about it in its emergency session last week.
But everyone has been waiting for the U.S. Department of Labor to weigh in on whether Colorado can return to the program and people who were cut off can claim retroactive pay. The DOL has not yet given its yay or nay, according to Cher Haavind, deputy director of the state’s department of labor.
“Despite the activity last week during the legislative session, there will continue to be no SEB benefits at this time,” Haavind said Thursday.
I’m still waiting for Gov. Polis’ office to share an update, but it’s seeming more unlikely SEB will return before the end of the year.
What happens in January?
If you still have regular benefits left, those will continue to pay out. For everyone else, we’re waiting on Congress to pass a new coronavirus relief package.
→ D.C. UPDATE: No movement on a few plans, including one that would pay an extra $300 a week to those on unemployment. The House has adjourned until Tuesday. Until a new relief bill is passed, crowdfunding site GoFundMe is sharing stories of one family a day.
Should a CARES Act II get passed soon and provide new money for those on unemployment, there may still be a lag with getting benefits paid, Haavind said.
“We need to await federal guidance from the U.S. Department of Labor,” she said. “That guidance tells us how we need to reprogram our system, who is eligible, who is not eligible.” It also would set a retroactive date. At least one congressional proposal is proposing Dec. 1, Haavind said.
Those on the soon-to-end programs should continue to request payments until Dec. 26. After that, the system won’t accept requests. But accounts will remain open in anticipation of new federal funding or program extensions.
The troubled ones: Holds, overpayments
I am still getting messages from people whose cases have been on hold for one reason or another and usually, the person has no idea why.
As of this week, there are 6,500 accounts on hold, but that includes new ones suspected of fraudulent activity. Of those, 4,000 are older fraud holds that get acted on soon as labor department investigators eliminate issues. (Read this to understand what are fraud holds and how to know if your account has one.)
“We expect to be able to release thousands after next week’s network analysis,” Haavind said
As for those shocked by an overpayment bill (Read this to learn why Colorado is forgiving some overpayment cases), many have been forgiven, but the forgiveness process is not 100% complete. The agency is removing the overpayment in cases where the amount claimed doesn’t match a user’s tax records because form instructions weren’t clear.
“In these cases, claimants may still see a balance for several days until the overpayment is removed. This process of overpayment removal occurs on a bi-weekly basis,” Haavind said.
Those who didn’t receive forgiveness should appeal or work with the state on a repayment plan.
→ BACK PAY: Getting retroactive benefits does happen. But if you gave up and stopped requesting the payment, you won’t be eligible for those weeks. However, Haavind said that in many cases, they are working with the person to submit requests for missing weeks “in order to make them whole.”
Some good news for post-Dec. 26: The state labor department continues to plow through unresolved cases. That means if you haven’t been paid benefits yet because your case was on hold, you still may get the money if your case is resolved — even after Dec. 26.
That includes the $600 per week in Federal Pandemic Emergency Compensation (which ended July 25), PEUC, SEB (for eligible weeks before Nov. 28) or PUA. These are all federal programs that end because the CARES Act is only good through the end of the year.
“There is no hard stop,” Haavind said in an email. “They will continue to get paid up through benefit week ending 12/26/20 even if they are approved after 12/26.”
The only one where retroactive payments may not happen is the $300 per week Lost Wages Assistance because if it runs out of money.
→ SOCIAL SUPPORT: I try to respond to all What’s Working readers. But I often just run out of time. Then I found the Colorado Unemployment/PEUC/PUA group on Facebook. It’s a good group of unemployed folks like Julie Garcia Lopez, Katricia Martinez and Josh Schwartz who try to separate fact from fiction.
And even though their cases have been resolved, they’ve stuck around to help others compare notes, and reach out to leaders like state Rep. Brianna Titone and U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet. I wrote about the group’s impact and how they’re helping other unemployed Coloradans. Check out the group and the story: Colorado’s unemployment system is so overwhelmed that strangers have resorted to helping each other
Other official Labor Dept. updates:
During a press call with labor staff on Thursday, the office shared these updates:
- A new bot launched on Dec. 2 to tackle the backlog of 20,000 “monetary redeterminations,” or cases when an unemployed person’s wages or work schedule claim is different from their employer’s. “The bot can actually perform significantly larger amounts of reviews than staff can,” Haavind said.
- The department has hired more help to work on improving customer service, its call center, communication and website navigation. This starts next week.
- There’s still a wait to talk to a human, but on Thursday, 600 new appointment openings were made available. Users should check regularly for openings.
Going back to work safely
About half of Colorado’s counties are in red-level coronavirus restrictions. So it’s no surprise that workers are concerned about returning to their jobs, even as hospital admissions have declined in the past week and there hasn’t been a Thanksgiving spike.
Workers shared stories of returning to an ill-equipped worksite during a Colorado AFL-CIO webinar this week. The larger issue was the lack of enforcement for places that violate COVID health orders. Rachel Wolter, a hair stylist in Douglas County, said she thinks she lost her job after raising concerns when another stylist who came to work visibly sick.
Dennis Dougherty, the union’s president, called for the state to take more action like setting up a hotline for workers who run into health-safety issues, and investigate cases so the responsibility doesn’t fall on workers.
The Department of Public Health & Environment does share workplace guidelines, but Dougherty said the state needs to do more. He shared results from a website the union set up at counsafeworksite.com to collect complaints.
“We’ve done minimal advertising on the websites and we’ve gotten over 1,000 complaints,” he said. “If there was education of workers across the state, I have no doubt that there would be tens of thousands, if not more, workplaces and work sites identified.”
→ COVID PLUG: Check in daily to The Sun’s coronavirus blog for the latest on what’s happening with coronavirus in Colorado, including which hospitals will get the vaccine first, issues with race-based COVID aid and more.
Freebies, business support, etc.
INTERNET DISCOUNT: For those who are falling deeper into financial despair, you may now qualify for Comcast’s low-income internet service called Internet Essentials, which is $9.95 a month for speeds of up to 25 mbps. The company will waive the monthly fee for 60 days to eligible new customers. Its Xfinity Wi-Fi public hotspots remain free to access. >> Details
$4 MILLION: The city of Denver plans to add $4 million to its COVID-19 emergency fund to help small businesses, residents and workers. It’s being split into grants for small businesses (details here), the Colorado Restaurant Foundation to help restaurant and hotel workers (details here) and a rent and utility assistance program (details here).
GOOD BUSINESS: Grassroots organization Good Business Colorado sprang up for like-minded businesses who wanted to promote equity and sustainability. As restaurants and retailers have had to minimize operations, the organization is offering a 25% match on gift card purchases so $100 will get you a $125 gift card at places like from Bistoro in Pueblo to Zoe Ma Ma in Denver and Boulder. (Good Business sends the gift cards electronically or by snail mail about 3 days after purchase.)>> Details
Have a resource to share with Colorado? Tell me about it at email@example.com
This week was heavy on unemployment news and rightly so. I’m always open to hearing about what efforts are being made to get us past this pandemic, as well as issues that are keeping people down. Share your thoughts and tips with me at firstname.lastname@example.org. And don’t forget to share this column with someone who needs to read it. It’s free! Until next week– 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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