Pho 95 Noodle House at The Streets of Southglenn in Centennial was open for business on Feb. 7, 2021, and hiring. (Tamara Chuang, The Colorado Sun)

The long-awaited rollout of federal unemployment benefits for those who have used up all other options now has a start date of Feb. 22, the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment announced Sunday.

“We know that many Coloradans are facing extreme economic hardships right now, and have been anxiously waiting for the ability to apply for these added benefits,” Joe Barela, the Department of Labor’s executive director, said in a written statement. “The phased-in rollout of the program has been frustrating for many, however, our priority has been to get benefits in the hands of the most eligible claimants we could feasibly reach at one time.” 

The beleaguered state agency has for weeks been criticized for how long it’s taken for unemployed Coloradans to be able to request benefits made available by the Continued Assistance Act, passed on Dec. 27. 

But the state had long warned that it could take up to 10 weeks to reprogram its computer system before the additional benefits could be distributed to everyone’s account. The state also spent the first week in January overhauling its decades-old computer system, a process that was postponed from April.

The weeks of waiting left hundreds of thousands of people on unemployment angry and frustrated, unable to pay bills and rent. On Monday, about 230,000 Coloradans were finally able to reopen their accounts and request a payment for the first time since benefits ended on Dec. 26, when the CARES Act expired. But this group included only those who had benefits left on Dec. 26. It also included at least 70,000 people on regular unemployment, whose accounts were automatically paid the bonus $300 per week retroactive to Dec. 27.

A second group, known as Phase 2, includes those who’d exhausted the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) and Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation (PEUC). On Thursday, labor officials said Phase 2 may not start until “the end of the month,” or two months after federal lawmakers approved the new relief plan.

Both programs will extend the weeks of eligible unemployment for another 11 weeks. People also qualify for an extra $300 per week for each week between Dec. 27 and March 13 that they were eligible for at least $1 of unemployment compensation.

The Phase 2 group also includes those applying for the first time for PUA, which is available to gig workers and the self-employed. The PEUC benefits are available to those people who have used up all of their regular state unemployment benefits.  

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

The first phase of unemployment benefits was not without problems, such as users finding themselves suddenly socked with overpayments, payment holds and denials. State officials said they worked with Deloitte, the labor department’s software vendor, to fix issues overnight or within days.

“We may have some kinks to work out, but our new, modernized cloud-based system will allow for much speedier implementation of future pandemic assistance legislation that we expect to come from the new administration,” Barela said. 

The Department of Labor said it will notify eligible folks in Phase 2 “in the coming weeks” about how to reopen their claims. 

The state labor agency said that since Feb. 1, more than 104,000 people have received over $166 million in benefits as part of Phase 1. 

Read more Colorado Sun stories on unemployment.

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...