Thousands of out-of-work Coloradans who’ve been waiting for federal benefits to restart can reopen their unemployment accounts on Saturday — about eight weeks after the last federal relief plan was approved by lawmakers.
Officials from the Colorado Department of Employment and Labor said the reopening comes two days sooner than expected. And they’ve already notified 289,000 people who are eligible for this so-called Phase 2 of benefits. An earlier phase allowed people who had benefits left from last year’s CARES Act to get paid earlier this month.
“We understand and we know that the gap in the benefits has been a hardship on Coloradans, but we are committed to making sure that we’re doing everything possible (to make sure) our systems are in compliance with rules and regulations that are required to administer these benefits to eligible unemployment claimants at this time,” Joe Barela, the Department of Labor’s executive director, said during a news conference Thursday.
The delays have been especially difficult and confusing for Coloradans who lost their jobs early on, when the first pandemic business restrictions rolled out in mid-March as part of public health and safety efforts. Many of those folks exhausted their benefits well before Dec. 26, when the CARES Act ended.
Mike Krumlauf, an Englewood resident who worked in the film and audio/video industry, was among thousands who lost benefits in November, when the State Extended Benefits program abruptly ended. He was told he could apply for the gig-worker program, called Pandemic Unemployment Assistance or PUA. But he was stuck in a confusing process of verifying his identity and he gave up. He’s had to sell some of his equipment to cover his January and February rent.
“I am hoping that when Phase 2 reverts my claim … I can collect all that back pay and use it as a cushion for future months of rent,” Krumlauf said in an email.
The eight-week delay was caused by federal lawmakers passing a new relief bill a day after the old one expired. The state had to wait two weeks for new rules from the U.S. Department of Labor, then the state agency had to program the changes to its computer system to add an additional 11 weeks of benefits to everyone’s unemployment account.
Phase 2 process
To prepare for the programming update, the state’s MyUI+ unemployment computer system will be unavailable starting at 5:30 p.m. Friday. It should be up and running again by 3 a.m. on Saturday. All eligible folks will be emailed one more time before Saturday, but there will also be alerts posted on the state’s unemployment page at coloradoui.gov.
On Saturday, the system will reopen to PUA and Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation (PEUC) users who exhausted their benefits. The system will also welcome people who are new to federal benefits plus those who’ve been without benefits since Nov. 28, when State Extended Benefits ended.
And even some folks who were supposed to be part of a later phase should be able to reopen their accounts this weekend, said Phil Spesshardt, acting director of the state’s Unemployment Insurance Division.
“We were able to shorten up the period for individuals who had very complicated claims and kept jumping between systems,” Spesshardt said.
In most cases, users in these exhausted programs will be able to request payments for all eligible weeks back to Dec. 27, when the Continued Assistance Act was passed by federal lawmakers. Those on PUA will be asked to first apply for “Standard UI,” or regular state benefits to confirm they are not eligible. If they are deemed ineligible, those users should see a “reopen” button on their account the next day.
Those on pandemic programs, plus those on regular state unemployment, are also eligible for the $300 weekly bonus called Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation (FPUC).
In the past two weeks, the state has distributed about $200 million in the FPUC benefits to roughly 130,000 people in Phase 1.
For the week ending Feb. 6, there were 184,755 claims for continued unemployment in the state. Of those, about 70,000 were on regular state unemployment, another 67,481 were on PUA and 47,281 were on PEUC. Since late March, the state has distributed $7.33 billion in unemployment benefits.
Still some delays
The system isn’t perfect, Spesshardt said. Some people still won’t be able to reopen their accounts this weekend. This is due to the changes in the federal relief plan. A group of unemployed workers with W-2 wages and gig work are part of a new “mixed-earner” group, which was slated for Phase 3. The new federal law allowed this group to be paid an additional $100 a week in Mixed Earner Unemployment Compensation (MEUC).
“That mixed-earner unemployment compensation is far more difficult to program,” Spesshardt said, offering no timeline for this group of about 2,000 people in Phase 3 . “There are multiple states at this point in time that are having difficulty in being able to program and roll out that MEUC program.”
And it’s complications like these that worry Spesshardt and Barela about the next federal relief bill underway in Congress. To avoid a payment stoppage for unemployed Americans, lawmakers need to pass the relief plan this week.
“The latest intel I’m getting is the Senate will take this up and vote … on March 14. Guess what? That’s when the Continued Assistance Act expires,” Barela said.
Another delay is already expected.
“We will be in the same position we were in in December,” Barela said. “The department is doing everything we can, and we want to do more, to make sure that the people who need the money can get it as quickly as possible.”