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Economy

What’s Working: What we learned after a week of Colorado paying pandemic unemployment benefits

One week down, countless more to go as Colorado's unemployment office fixes Phase 1 problems on the fly while people still waiting on Phase 2 benefits lose hope. Plus, the Paycheck Protection loan program isn’t perfect, either.

A "for lease" sign is pictured on a vacant storefront next to a sign promoting social distancing in Arvada on Dec. 16, 2020. (Andy Colwell, Special to The Colorado Sun)
  • Credibility:

Colorado saw another intense week of job news with several examples of what’s working and what’s really not.

As 230,000 out-of-work residents clamored to reopen their unemployment accounts on Monday, there was joy and pain, relief and frustration, clogged support lines and some who gave up and then got paid anyway. My conclusion: Nothing makes sense anymore! 

I know that many of you will say, “Told you so.” I spent the week reading and responding to messages to learn more of the who, what and why the heck this happened as federal benefits were paid for the first time in five weeks. 

Of course, the time I spent sorting out the unemployment confusion meant I didn’t get around to other stories.

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I didn’t dig deeper into Comcast’s decision to double the speed of its low-cost Internet Essentials service. It now offers 50 megabits down, 5 mbps up for everyone on its $9.95 per month internet plans, and that should help students with online video classes. (And no, Colorado isn’t among the 12 states where Comcast is postponing a 1.2TB data cap.)

Or that the counties of Denver and El Paso were among the latest to get approved by the state health department to join the 5 Star program, which allows restaurants, gyms and other businesses to accelerate their reopening — and return of employees — if they abide by safety measures. 

Or that there is still a lot of money for small businesses eligible for forgivable Paycheck Protection Program loans. As of Jan. 31, only one-quarter of the available $284 billion for the program was claimed. Of the $72.7 billion in approved loans, Colorado’s share was a mere 1.9%, which works out to $1.4 billion provided to 15,486 small businesses in the state. That averages out to $90,404 per loan. (More below!)

These are all things that will help the Colorado economy back on its feet, and they’re being covered by other local and national media sites. That’s why I continue to plug away and respond to emails from people who need clarity about Colorado’s unemployment woes. 

The highs and lows of Phase 1

On Monday, the first day some people could reopen their Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) or Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation (PEUC) accounts, I was hearing cheers from those who got through and made their claims for the past five weeks. 

On Tuesday, some realized the payments didn’t go through or were denied, or payments were put on hold. (Some did see the payments go through.)

Cory Eberhard, a Denver resident I’ve kept in touch with for months, was one of them. His claim went through Monday (yay!), but then there were pending issues on Wednesday (bummer). On Thursday, he was deemed ineligible (why?), and then on Friday, he got paid (huh?) without changing a thing.

We couldn’t figure out what happened each day in his case.

The state confirmed that some of the common issues causing people to be denied were a confusingly-worded question, overpayments reappeared in accounts and holds that seemed unrelated to fraud. Some of these problems are addressed in my earlier coverage of the Phase 1 rollout this week:

About that question 

You cannot qualify for pandemic PUA benefits if COVID-19 didn’t cause your job loss. That was the issue that denied folks like Kevin Saunders, who lives in Parker, their benefits this week. But the state doesn’t blame users. The question, worded as required by the U.S. Department of Labor, was confusing. 

So the state is changing how the question is presented. It will be last in the series of questions, be in bold and there will be instructions in parentheses on how to answer. The change will be made this weekend.

In other words, when you get to this eligibility question, DON’T CHECK THE LAST BOX that says (see image below):

I am no longer unemployed as a result of the COVID-19 public health emergency. (Only select this if none of the above apply).

DON’T CHECK THE LAST BOX! People on Pandemic Unemployment Assistance must certify weekly that their unemployment is a result of COVID-19. The section has been adjusted so that the confusing statement is at the bottom with a warning to “Only select if none of the above apply.” The new language will be updated by February 8, 2021. (Provided by the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment)

Added Feb. 6: Apparently, people are still confused so this image should help:

Regardless of what the labor agency changed, you now know this is a critical statement, so please read carefully when certifying that you’re eligible for another week.

As for folks like Saunders, who now must appeal the denial, the state is still gathering up everyone who was disqualified because they answered the question incorrectly. “Once we have the data, we will investigate to see if we can automatically resolve this particular group,” said Jessica Hudgins Smith, the new press secretary for the Division of Unemployment Insurance. 

If you made this error but still have pandemic benefits, make sure you certify correctly next week to get paid for the week — plus the bonus $300, also known as Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation (FPUC).

On Friday, Jessica Hudgins Smith, the new press secretary for the Division of Unemployment Insurance, shared more issues discovered this week when a couple hundred thousand people hit the system have been resolved, including:

  • Fixed the erroneous overpayments
  • Fixed the missing payments for claimants who were stuck on submitted status
  • Fixed the self employment issue that was holding up payment 
  • Fixed the reopen link that was redirecting to a staff login page

“Many common issues we saw come up this week have been resolved including the erroneous overpayments and denied payments being corrected during the overnight batch,” Smith said in an email. “ … As for the previous disqualifications, we are still working on a way to remedy those claims en masse.”

Other causes for denials, holds? Saying no to being physically and mentally able to work, plus not completing work search tasks and activities leads to a denial. Not verifying your ID through the IDme tool will put your account on hold. Stuck in an “integrity” hold? Fill out THIS FORM  to get a link to verify your ID on IDme.

The makes-no-sense-cause for denials: Lag. Even if the system says denied, you might get your payment anyway after the brand new computer system updates itself overnight. (See “Where is my notice to tell me why my weeks are denied?”)

Other notes from Phase 1

The first mention of phases a few weeks ago didn’t delve into the nuances of each phase — and that upset many, many people. But remember folks, there are dozens of different Phase 1 scenarios out there.

Think about it. There were 230,000 people in Phase 1 plus another 70,000 on regular unemployment (the latter were easier to please because the state just added $300 to their weekly checks). Based on the emails I received, I would say there were at least 229,999 other scenarios the labor agency didn’t address.

Now we know more. Here are some I’ve gleaned as people shared their experiences, or are reminders from earlier reporting: 

  • If you exhaust all benefits in Phase 1 (whether you were on pandemic or regular unemployment), you now move to Phase 2 when the state reprograms its computer to add the extra 11 weeks to every PUA or PUEC account. At that time, you can certify for back weeks.
  • The $300 FPUC, paid to anyone eligible for $1 of unemployment benefits, can be paid only if you certify for a week. If you started Phase 1 with two weeks leftover from last year, you only get two weeks of the $300 now. To claim the remaining three-plus weeks of $300, you must wait until Phase 2, when your account is replenished.
  • If you switched to PUA after State Extended Benefits ended in November, you were able to reopen your account in Phase 1. When Phase 2 starts, you’ll switch to PEUC and your past PUA weeks will become PEUC so you can exhaust benefits in the right order. The order: Regular UI → PEUC → SEB (or PUA)
  • But if your PEUC payment is different from PUA, when Phase 2 starts, the state “will issue a make-up payment to adjust for this difference,” Smith said.
  • Other tips from users included refresh your screen, use a different browser (a surprising number suggested Microsoft Edge) and allow pop-ups. 

→ The state’s FAQ’s for the federal pandemic programs have been updated

Phase 2 is weeks away

I was shocked to hear Department of Labor officials say on Thursday that they had hoped Phase 2 would be “the end of the month.”

While it certainly seems like Deloitte, the agency’s vendor, could have programmed this by now, I speak from, well, no experience. I’m not a programmer, but I know it took a long time to upgrade The Colorado Sun’s website recently. Labor department vendors were also preoccupied with Phase 1 fixes this week. 

But any logical reasons why Colorado is heading into week seven since the Continued Assistance Act passed are not going over well with people in Phase 2, some who haven’t been paid since November and are going on three months. But should the vendors move on to Phase 2? Ask anyone in Phase 1 and I doubt any would say yes. There are still unpaid people in the first phase.

That said, if you are upset, tell your local lawmakers. Maybe the local tech and entrepreneurial community could volunteer to offer a solution faster. Maybe someone could figure out how to get the in-the-weeds volunteers in this unemployment Facebook group to join the state’s call center. Or let’s get the staff at the Department of Labor to do an AMA on Reddit. Just saying!

Here are links to contact information for Colorado’s lawmakers:

And remember, President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion plan to extend pandemic unemployment benefits to September plus pay $400 a week is making its way through Congress. Let him know how you feel.

No income? Get help

If you’re struggling to make rent or pay your phone bill, let me remind you of these resources:

HOUSING HELP: For those who know they’re not getting another unemployment payment until later this month at the earliest, remember there is a state program that helps pay your rent. The state is taking applications for both its renters and landlord programs, plus there is still money available for homeowners who need financial assistance with their mortgage. Apply to the Emergency Housing Assistance Program here: cdola.colorado.gov/rental-mortgage-assistance

FREE HEALTH INSURANCE: Coloradans who lost their jobs have 60 days to apply to Connect for Health. This program is available to anyone, no matter your income. But if your income has fallen dramatically, you may qualify for Health First Colorado, which is free or a lower cost since it’s Medicaid (see income guidelines).

A student at the Arthur E. Johnson Boys & Girls Club in Denver working in one of the Comcast Lift Zone areas. (Handout)

INTERNET OPTION: Besides its $9.95 broadband internet service, Comcast has partnered with local community centers to create Lift Zones, which offer free Wi-Fi and a safe space to work, study or do online learning. These focus on students, but there are facilities open to adults, like The Commons on Champa in Denver. Here’s a list of Colorado locations.

EVERYTHING: 2-1-1 Colorado is a phone number and website run by nonprofits, including Mile High United Way. Ask for help with housing, utility bills, food, legal help, health, pretty much anything.They offer resources in your community. 

More resources

Back to PPPs

As mentioned, there is federal money available for small businesses that are operating at some capacity and could use money to pay workers. FirstBank is one of several lenders in Colorado participating in this round of Paycheck Protection loans.

It’s a high priority for the bank, especially to work with those previously overlooked, said Chandra Brin, a FirstBank spokeswoman.  

“Since we opened our second draw PPP portal on Jan. 19, we’ve received approximately 4,200 Colorado applications totaling $335 million,” Brin said in an email. About 10% of them were first-time PPP borrowers, according to her tally from Jan. 29.

That compares to FirstBank’s PPP participation last year, when it made 13,000 loans for a total of $1 billion. 

The loans, which are forgiven if most of the money is used to pay employees, have not been without some problems, according to the Small Business Administration, which issued a statement on Friday.

The agency said so far this year, 4.7% of the new Paycheck loans had anomalies in the lender-submitted data. Most were data mismatches and eligibility concerns. Unfortunately, that means follow up is needed between the lender and borrower if the borrower wants to try for a second Paycheck loan. Once the errors are resolved, SBA said it will “automatically move favorable decisions to approval.”

If your loan was rejected, talk to your lender to find out why.

Let’s hope many of the problems that emerged in Phase 1 are just a bad dream that the Department of Labor’s vendors will have resolved by next week. Share your success stories and aggravations or other tales to help inform me of how the process is improving — or not.

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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