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Economy

What’s Working: Desperate times for employers as 134,000 Coloradans still are on federal unemployment

As the state reports the lowest number of initial jobless claims since the pandemic began, five weeks remain of federal benefits. Plus: Eviction moratorium ends, rental housing assistance available.

Signs and banners advertising jobs are pictured at the entrance to City on a Hill Cafe & Espresso Bar in Leadville on Friday, May 7, 2021. (Andy Colwell, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Located not far from the Telluride Ski Resort gondola, The Alpinist and The Goat needs help. Preferably, two waiters, a dishwasher and a prep cook.

The downtown Telluride fondue restaurant pays wait staff a little more than $12 an hour, which is higher than the state’s $9.30 an hour for tipped employees. The days are your own since work doesn’t start until 4 p.m. and for now, the restaurant is closed on Fridays. 

And if you can’t afford to live near this luxe mountain town, owner Neal Elinoff has extra beds available in a shared living space for $170 a week — and that, too, may be negotiable. 

“I don’t care what their history is, but if they can show up, they’re reasonably hardworking, I’ll put them to work,” Elinoff said. “I used to hire people, do background checks. But now? You’re breathing? You pass. You’re hired. I’m not kidding.”

A converted hostel-like apartment in Telluride has four beds, a bathroom and washer and dryer. It rents for $170 a week and is reserved for workers at Neal Elinoff’s restaurant, The Alpinist and the Goat. But he said he still has trouble attracting employees. (Provided by Neal Elinoff)

Elinoff was one of the more cynical responses to last week’s column detailing reasons Colorado’s job market is so complicated — even for business owners. In Telluride, service workers face an extremely unbalanced housing market. They keep getting kicked out of rentals as investors convert houses into overnight vacation homes. Home prices are out of range even for many professionals — the town’s lowest-priced house on Zillow on Friday was a 1-bedroom, 422-square-foot unit above a downtown commercial space for $800,000.  

Housing and other factors — not the coronavirus pandemic — have long made it difficult to hire reliable staff for restaurants, stores and other services that cater to tourists.

Various mountain communities are working to solve labor shortages by tackling their housing problem, including in Telluride, where residents gathered 200 signatures last week to limit short-term rentals hoping to make the rental market more affordable to locals. (Read Jason’s Blevins ‘ story on how mountain communities are dealing with short-term rentals.)

But it seems amplified in places like Telluride and the issue is years in the making — it’s not just COVID, said Elinoff, who also owns a local jewelry store and art gallery.

“It’s harder in these more extreme mountain communities because no one moves here to further their professional careers. They move here as a lifestyle choice and holding a regular job is an objection to their lifestyle aspirations,” he said. “Once they’re here for a while and see how hard it is, especially if they don’t have subsidized housing, they eventually leave.”

→ What about COVID? Another reason shared by a reader about why folks may not be returning to work yet? COVID. The delta variant is spreading and “COVID doesn’t appear to be solved or finished and even if you’ve had the vaccine and COVID (I had both), the variants can still infect you,” said Craig A. from Denver.

JOB SHARING: Reader Craig Hanzelka, who’s shared his past unemployment woes, said his new employer Biker Jim’s Gourmet Dogs in Denver needs back-of-the-house workers. Pay is $15 to $20 an hour and with tips that “can end up being $18-22 an hour!! Better than most restaurants!” Have a job opening you recommend? Let me know at tamara@coloradosun.com

Today’s issue: End of eviction moratorium

For Coloradans who have trouble paying rent because of a reduced income during the pandemic, the last federal edict stopping landlords from kicking them out ends today, July 31. 

TODAY’S UNDERWRITER

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s national eviction moratorium won’t be extended — even at President Joe Biden’s request. He asked for an extension Thursday because of the uncertainty of the spreading coronavirus delta variant. But a ruling last month by the U.S. Supreme Court requires Congress to authorize extensions and that’s not happening.

But on Friday afternoon, Gov. Jared Polis issued another executive order to prevent landlords from kicking out tenants if those folks have applied for state rental assistance. The order requires 30 days notice, instead of 10, before a landlord can file an eviction action in court.

Landlords, meanwhile, have been evicting tenants the whole time. They’re allowed to challenge whether a tenant’s reduced income is really related to the coronavirus. They can boot tenants who are disruptive or for other reasons. In June, nearly 2,000 Colorado renters were evicted, which was two-thirds the number in June 2019, according to the Colorado Apartment Association.

There is still help available for renters.

Congress allocated $690 million to Colorado just for rent assistance, and the state has been using the money to provide several months of rent payments through the Emergency Rental Assistance Program.

Of the federal money though, only about $20 million to $30 million has been approved or paid. Officials with the state’s Division of Housing said this week that fraud caused delays, but they didn’t elaborate. One landlord who said her tenant was approved in early June still hadn’t been paid on Tuesday — nearly seven weeks later. 

I wrote about Karen Arnold’s frustration and a day later, she said her tenant received the money.

“Do you think that sending two urgent emails saying the article in The Colorado Sun was going to print and then later sending the article itself had anything to do with it?” wrote Arnold, who has a half-dozen townhouse rentals in Denver and Aurora. “What (about) landlords whose stories aren’t published and who don’t raise hell?”

→ Still waiting on ERAP payments, face an eviction or working with your tenant? Share your story with me at tamara@coloradosun.com

→ Get up to 15 months of overdue and future rent paid through the state’s ERAP rental assistance program >> APPLY

134,000 still on federal unemployment

The Colorado Department of Labor and Employment said the number of first-time jobless claims dropped to 3,317 for the week ending July 24. That is the lowest weekly number for regular state claims since the pandemic began.

That number, however, excludes people eligible for federal benefits. While the number of people on federal Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, or the gig worker benefit, also dropped, there are still 98,000 Coloradans collecting either PUA or extended state benefits — both covered by the federal government. An additional 36,000 people are collecting the federal $300 weekly bonus. 

That’s a total of 134,000 Coloradans still on some form of federal unemployment, as of July 17, according to the state Department of Labor.

All the federal benefits come to an end Sept. 4. CDLE hasn’t estimated how many of the 134,000 people will lose benefits on that day. But the agency has added an “End of Federal Pandemic Benefits” page to help guide folks through the process, finding a job and other support. 

Top things to know:

  • Benefits that end Sept. 4 include PUA, Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation and the $300 bonus known as Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation. 
  • Benefits technically end Sept. 6, but states aren’t allowed to pay a partial week. So Colorado’s last full week of eligibility is Sept. 4, a Saturday.
  • Those who are still eligible for regular state benefits will continue to receive payments if they do their weekly reports.
  • If you haven’t applied for PUA but now realize you’re eligible, the U.S. Department of Labor requires state agencies to accept new applications for 30 days after the Sept. 6 deadline. Colorado will back date those claims.

It appears unlikely that the federal benefits will be extended, even as stories quoting economists and professors say the spreading delta strain could change that. About 25 states already ended some of the federal payments, though several states are now embroiled in lawsuits for ending benefits before the September expiration.

TODAY’S UNDERWRITER

The MEUC update

Colorado never got around to paying the Mixed Earners Unemployment Compensation benefit, which was supposed to pay an extra $100 to people who qualified for both regular and gig worker benefits. You can only qualify for one and regular benefits had to be used first, which meant some mixed earners received less on regular benefits.

MEUC is gearing up, CDLE spokeswoman Jessica Hudgins Smith said Friday.

“We will be launching MEUC in mid-August,” she said. 

Those eligible — folks who received regular unemployment or PEUC anytime between Dec. 27 and Sept. 4 — will be able to apply. If that’s you, you will receive an email in August with instructions.

MEUC rollout was delayed because there were much larger issues for the unemployment office to tackle this year. And, Smith added, based on MEUC eligibility in other states and CDLE’s own record of claimants, the number of people eligible is likely in the “high hundreds or low thousands.”

“We expect these MEUC back payments to be issued starting in early September,” Smith said.

More unemployment stats

Colorado has paid out more than $10.6 billion in unemployment benefits during the pandemic, most of which is funded by federal payments and not the state’s unemployment insurance trust fund. 

But the state isn’t off the hook. The trust fund was exhausted last August and as of July 28, the state had borrowed $1.01 billion from the federal government to pay workers who would normally qualify for state benefits. That billion-dollar bill will have to be repaid by employers. 

While employers are responsible for workers let go during the pandemic, if the cause of the job cut was a result of the pandemic, the employer won’t see higher unemployment insurance premiums as they normally would, according to the CDLE

→ Of the 18,687 unemployed Coloradans who opted into the Colorado Jumpstart incentive program to return to work, 10,578 have received some of the $8.7 million in payouts, as of July 23. That’s an average of $821 each.

→ Reports of scams continue if you peek at issues raised over on the very helpful Facebook Colorado unemployment group. If you didn’t get your usual weekly payment, change your MyUI+ account password and verify your bank information. Scammers are phishing for logins and passwords and then switching deposits to their own banks. >> More examples

→ Speaking of fraud: Investigative news site ProPublica dove into unemployment fraud and detailed how it’s being done and why it’s been difficult for state labor agencies to get ahead of it. >> READ

→ Speaking of Facebook: Top issues in the Colorado unemployment Facebook group are what happens when benefits end, part-time work, non-monetary determinations and overpayments. If you barge into the group seeking help, read older posts (including announcements) first before asking a question. Please and thank you, moderators tell me. >> Search responses

Other business bits

PPP UPDATE: Forgiveness has begun for small businesses that borrowed a Paycheck Protection Program loan. But it should get even faster as the Small Business Administration launches a new forgiveness portal for loans below $150,000. The portal opens Aug. 4 but borrowers can call 877-552-2692 if they have questions. >> directforgiveness.sba.gov 

VERTICAL INCOMING: PteroDynamics, which designs aircraft for vertical take-off and landing, picked Colorado Springs for its new research and development center. The California company will qualify for up to $2.6 million in state tax credits if it creates 186 new jobs over an eight-year period that pay an average annual wage of $120,645.

VALUE OF MENTORSHIP: Denver-based Mentor Spaces, which provides communities a mobile app to connect to mentors and diverse talent, has raised $2.5 million in seed funding. While one can very well do this without an app, it’s not so easy in this modern, coming-out-of-COVID world. The app provides a virtual space to have those conversations and it uses artificial intelligence to make sure interests are aligned. Free for users while a subscription is required for companies. >> Check out Mentor Spaces


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.

MORE: Read stories on Colorado jobs and unemployment


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