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What’s Working: CARES Act II inches closer as 280,000 Coloradans will lose unemployment benefits day after Christmas

What CARES Act Part II may offer to the unemployed, plus a Denver effort to help salons and barbershops, free rent and mental-health support and 75,000 job openings

El Aguascalientes on Wadsworth Blvd. in Wheat Ridge has signs thanking its customers and advertising take-out options. Signs of COVID-19 and its effects on bars and restaurants are visible around the metro area on December 16, 2020 in Denver. (Kathryn Scott, Special to The Colorado Sun)
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By the time you read this, there could be a new federal COVID-19 relief package on its way to the Oval Office for the president’s signature, which is good timing since roughly 280,000 Coloradans will lose their unemployment benefits on the day after Christmas.

But it was a rough Friday evening as Congress couldn’t come together to pass a relief bill that would also avoid a government shutdown. They instead passed a short-term bill to keep the government operating until Sunday and continued to negotiate on a sequel to the CARES Act.

So… maybe we’ll have a relief plan Sunday?

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What we know as of Friday evening is this: The Emergency Coronavirus Relief Act of 2020 has support from both Republicans and Democrats. If it gets passed as is, pretty much all federally funded unemployment programs will be extended for 16 weeks to April 19.

The specific highlights:   

  • Adds 16 more weeks of Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) pay for gig workers and self-employed folks — for a total of 55 weeks
  • Adds 16 more weeks of Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation (PEUC) — for a total of 29 weeks
  • Pays an extra $300/week to the unemployed for up to 16 weeks, between Dec. 26 and April 19 (minimum unemployment pay is not known) That’s half the amount of the Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation (PUC) from earlier this year.
  • No retroactive pay. It would start after Dec. 26.
  • No interest on federal loans used to replenish the state unemployment trust fund, which probably doesn’t mean much to those on unemployment. But employers, who typically pay for unemployment insurance, face a hefty bill in the future since Colorado has borrowed $671 million from the feds to pay people on regular unemployment.

UPDATE, Dec. 20: Congress agreed on the $900 billion relief plan on Sunday. The bill heads to the Senate and House on Monday for the official vote, and then the President’s signature.

The proposed new relief plan should go far to help those who’ve remained unemployed or underemployed in the pandemic. After all, the first round of federal dollars helped hundreds of thousands of out-of-work Coloradans stay afloat on $3.7 billion in federal benefits, broken down like so: 

  • $2.51 billion in PUC (the $600 weekly bonus) 
  • $923.4 million in PUA
  • $284.3 million in PEUC
  • $29.3 million in State Extended Benefits

(Need a primer on the acronyms? Read this.)

Add that to what the state covered in regular benefits and Colorado’s Department of Labor and Employment has overseen the payout of $6.49 billion since March 29. By comparison, Colorado paid out about $410 million last year, or not even a tenth of the sum spent so far this year.

But what does this all mean? 

Thanks to the federal unemployment funds and state COVID-19 safety measures, Colorado has recovered most of the jobs lost in the early weeks of the pandemic. The state’s unemployment rate remained unchanged at 6.4% in November.

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.
  • 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

Ryan Gedney, the senior economist at the Department of Labor, said Friday: “The state has regained 209,600 of the 342,300 non-farm payroll jobs lost in March and April.”

That’s a recovery of 61% of the jobs lost earlier this year, which puts Colorado’s recovery rate as the 20th fastest state and above the national average of 56%, he said.

Things are looking up for Colorado’s economy. And as my colleague John Frank reported Friday, a new legislative economic forecast shows the state recovering much faster than predicted, with an additional $500 million in now-expected revenue.

But what does it mean if I’m unemployed?

If you’ve run out of benefits, more money is on the way if the federal relief plan passes soon.

But don’t expect payments until late January or possibly February, said labor officials. Even if the new relief plan passes before Christmas, the agency must wait for guidance from the U.S. Department of Labor and then reprogram its computers. During the Great Recession, that process took 10 weeks.

The agency expects to roll out a modern computer system in January to handle all claims. The pandemic stalled earlier plans, resulting in job claims getting processed on some pretty old tech, which is a reason blamed for difficulties and holds on many user accounts.

Once in place, local labor officials promise the new system will be:

  • Faster
  • Allow weekly payment requests and payouts
  • More user friendly 
  • Allow users to handle some of the issues on their own

“We were required to pivot our resources earlier this year when COVID hit,” said Cher Haavind, the department’s spokesperson. “Fortunately our modernization efforts were far enough along, but that’s actually the system for PUA claims that will now become the system for all regular unemployment benefits and PUA benefits.”  

And likely, if you’ve exhausted your PEUC benefits by now and had moved on to the (since ended) State Extended Benefits, the new relief bill would let you back on to PEUC for 16 weeks, according to my knowledge of how the plans work — which is confirmed by state labor officials. After exhausting that, then SEB would kick in again since the 13-week waiting period would be over.

MORE: Colorado Public Radio reporter Andrew Kenney dove into this new system earlier this week.

State extended benefits hits the wall

TODAY’S UNDERWRITER

Colorado gave it a shot, but the effort to bring back State Extended Benefits, which ended four weeks earlier than expected on Nov. 28, appears to have gone kaput. 

Officials were waiting on the U.S. Department of Labor to rule on whether Colorado’s new law would allow the state to skip a 13-week waiting period before reinstating the benefit. Looks like it’s a no. But according to Conor Cahill, a spokesman for Gov. Jared Polis, Congress may consider allowing the change in the upcoming relief package.

“The governor had a conversation with the Secretary (of Labor) and made the case why this should be extended for Colorado,” Cahill said in an email. “Following the conversation, the secretary’s staff worked with Senator (Michael) Bennet on legislation addressing extending benefits, and we are hopeful that given the bipartisan support from Colorado’s Congressional delegation, the legislative fix will be included in the federal stimulus bill.”

>> RELATED: A glitch in Colorado’s unemployment system kept thousands from accessing federal coronavirus aid

Get support if you need it

When I asked readers last week to share resources to help those on unemployment with other needs, one person — ONE — shared (thank you, Glenn). He mentioned NAMI Colorado Springs, an affiliate of the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

The organization offers programs and support groups to help those who are struggling from the mental frustration during the pandemic. The sessions, which are also available to  family members, have gone online and are free. Also helpful, NAMI provides a list of local organizations in the region that also provide support for mental health.

Here’s a link to other NAMI affiliates in Colorado.

NEED RENT? Don’t overlook this government-funded program to get your rent paid. It does need buy-in from landlords, but what landlord wouldn’t want to collect the rent (well, there are some)? >> Details for tenants and landlords

Have a resource or tip that other Coloradans struggling with COVID-related economic issues should know about? Share it by emailing tamara@coloradosun.com.

Pandemic hair hurts an industry 

With people sticking close to home this season and pretty much no one hosting company holiday parties or having a festive night out, the hair salon industry is hurting badly.

But the industry hasn’t had much of a voice, or at least not a united one, until recently. Three weeks ago, after California shut down salons for the the third time in the pandemic, Denver-based Floyd’s 99 Barbershop launched #KeepUsWorking to bring attention to the plight of 2.3 million professional beauty workers nationwide.

The #KeepUsWorking campaign was launched by Denver-based Floyd’s 99 Barbershop to highlight the safety measures already in place by the licensed beauty industry (Provided by Floyd’s 99 Barbershop)

The effort has since been joined by hair clippers maker Wahl, scissors company Titan Barber and others. The site asks advocates to call their local representatives and offers handy forms to do so. 

The campaign highlights the precautions built into the industry of licensed workers, plus additional COVID-19 safety measures, said Patrick Butler, a barber and Floyd’s technical director. About 35-40% of regular customers industry wide have stopped regular appointments due to safety or financial concerns.

“We’re an industry that’s based on safety,” Butler said. “But we want the public to feel safe …. The good news with the vaccines is that you’re going to see confidence building, but we also want to encourage people to understand how safe we are, as these restrictions hopefully get lifted.”

Floyd’s, with 126 locations nationwide and 600 employees in Colorado, said the chain has only cut about 1 million heads since restrictions began lifting in May. Last year, they were around 3 million. In many states, including Colorado, they’ve been operating at 25% capacity. Social distancing keeps every other seat permanently empty. But through pushing its reservation system and staggering shifts, the company has maintained about 75% of its staff.

“This month is typically a very busy month in the barbershop and salon world. I mean everybody wants to look good for the holidays,” he said. “And we’re hoping that stays true.”

RESOURCE: $500 grants are available from the Professional Beauty Association and PBA Charities, which had awarded $1.5 million as of Oct. 15. >> Donate or apply

Over the summer, Floyd’s 99 Barbershops shifted hair cuts outdoors, as pictured in the July photo taken at a store in California. The Denver-based chain has since closed California facilities due to COVID-19 restrictions. In Colorado, the company is operating at 25% customer capacity and is trying to keep 75% of its staff employed. (Photo provided by Floyd’s 99 Barbershop)

Get a job helping others

The Salvation Army is more than a thrift store or the red kettle you see around the holidays (they’re online this year). The organization also helps folks struggling during tough times. In the pandemic, it’s working to verify renters or homeowners to get housing assistance from state funding.

They have more than 400 households on the waiting list and it’s not because the money is an issue — they need more people to help get through the cases. The housing division of Salvation Army also needs help in its shelters and elsewhere. 

“I have endless need for staff,” said Kristen Baluyot, its Denver Metro Social Services Director. “Not everybody wants to do them, but they are jobs. I have a number of vacancies right now. In fact, we’re preparing to post for another 24 positions.” 

Have at ‘em: Salvation Army job openings

MORE JOBS: The state’s database had 75,307 job openings as of Friday at ConnectingColorado.com. The most wanted jobs, according to the Department of Labor:  

  • CDL-A truck drivers (3,728)
  • Registered nurses (900)
  • Customer service representatives (824)

Thanks for tuning in to What’s Working this week. Share it with a friend in need (it’s free!), send in your tips and stories, and try and have a good holiday. Until next time ~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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