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Businesses at the Denver Pavilions advertise to the few passersby on the 16th Street Mall on August 24, 2020. (Eric Lubbers, The Colorado Sun)

A month after pandemic unemployment benefits expired, Colorado is reopening its computer system to those eligible for federal jobless aid.

The agency is rolling out benefits in phases, and will start “late next week” with the $300 weekly bonus to all those on unemployment, plus allow non-traditional workers who have not exhausted their federal pandemic relief to reopen their claim, said Joe Barela, executive director of the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment. 

“This allows CDLE to provide benefits to the greatest number of claimants during this phase,” Barela said Friday.  

Out-of-work Americans whose benefits had run out had been counting on the new federal relief program to get them through another 11 weeks of job searching during the pandemic. The federal benefits pay an extra $300 to those eligible for at least $1 in weekly benefits.

Barela said those on unemployment won’t have to do anything extra to receive the $300 payments. When the first payments are sent — and state officials didn’t share a date when this will happen — the amount will include retroactive benefits to Dec. 27, when the new law went into effect. 

The Department of Labor, which also announced that December’s unemployment rate increased to 8.4% from 6.4% in November, is also hosting a town hall meeting online on Friday for people with unemployment questions. The session in English is at 11:30 a.m., while one in Spanish is at 1:30 p.m. You can view the live stream HERE or join by phone 833-380-0643. A recording is usually available on the state’s website after the event.

The much-anticipated news comes four weeks after most unemployed Coloradans received their last check. But the renewed benefits are, for now, only applicable to those who hadn’t exhausted their benefits by Dec. 26. Thousands had used up their benefits long before the federal programs ended.

“So. Much. Frustration,” texted Erin Joy Swank, one of the moderators of a private Facebook group for unemployed Coloradans. “People (are) getting angrier, more desperate and we now have more than 6,100 in the group.”

The group had about 2,500 members in early December.

At the end of 2020, there were 308,015 people receiving unemployment benefits. But more than half, or approximately 161,292, saw their benefits end because the CARES Act expired on the day after Christmas. 

Those were people who had used up all of their regular benefits plus workers on Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, which offered benefits for the first time to gig workers, the self employed and contractors. 

Part of the delay was blamed on federal lawmakers who didn’t pass a new COVID relief bill until the last half of December and signed by President Donald Trump a day after benefits ended. That meant the Colorado labor agency needed to wait for guidance from the U.S. Department of Labor to reprogram its computer system. 

While that put Colorado in the same position as other states, the additional delay was that the labor agency decided it was time to roll out an overhaul of its antiquated computer system used during the Great Recession. The upgrade had been scheduled for last April but was postponed due to the pandemic.

The upgrade took the unemployment system offline for five days and reopened on Jan. 10. But only people on regular unemployment could request a payment. Because the state still needed to add in the federal benefits, everyone else had to wait.

The second phase of federal aid will include those on pandemic unemployment with exhausted benefits. More details are expected next week.

More updates: What’s Working: Here’s how Colorado is rolling out federal unemployment benefits, plus Paycheck loans are hopping

Tamara Chuang writes about Colorado business and the local economy for The Colorado Sun, which she cofounded in 2018 with a mission to make sure quality local journalism is a sustainable business. Her focus on the economy during the pandemic...