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Economy

What’s Working: How much federal COVID relief went to unemployed Coloradans?

It's way more than $7.9 billion. Plus: Trust fund improprieties; mixed earner mistakes and construction jobs are plentiful -- and perks are getting better.

Susan Ohlhaber of Morrison (left) measures a 2x4 during a construction boot camp at the Colorado Homebuilding Academy on Monday, August 20, 2021, in Denver. The Academy teaches construction skills, technical math and power tool usage to attendees, many of which have transitioned into jobs within the housing and construction industry. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun)
  • Credibility:

The day is finally here and some will weep but others will likely be cheering. It’s the last day Colorado will pay pandemic unemployment benefits, if you’re reading this on Sept. 4.

According to Department of Labor and Employment officials, about 107,000 Coloradans will no longer be eligible while another 30,000 people will no longer receive an extra $300 a week.

Getting financial relief to hundreds of thousands of Coloradans during the pandemic challenged every state system imaginable. The state’s labor agency delayed its new computer system at first but then upgraded 10 months later because the old programs could not handle it. Delays, backlogs, locked accounts, unpaid accounts along with plenty of people who were paid pandemic benefits then ensued.

But it wasn’t just the labor department that struggled to help the unemployed, though it did oversee the distribution of $11.2 billion in state and federal unemployment benefits since March 29, 2020. 

The Department of Local Affairs was tasked with distributing hundreds of millions of dollars in rent assistance. They too had delays but that system appears to finally be paying out rent checks now (more on that here). And then there’s the Paycheck Protection Program, which provided billions of dollars to Colorado small businesses to keep employees paid. 

TODAY’S UNDERWRITER

All together, the grand total is roughly $24.7 billion, or about $8,000 for every working and unemployed Coloradan. While the money did benefit more than just unemployed Coloradans, here’s how that amount is split between various state programs funded by Congressional relief packages or other federal aid:

  • $7.9 billion — Amount of federal unemployment benefits distributed by the state Department of Labor between March 29, 2020, and Aug. 28.
  • $68.5 million — Rental assistance distributed by state and local governments as of July 31 through the Emergency Rental Assistance Program. Eligible applicants had to show a job loss or loss of income due to COVID. The state was allotted $690 million so money is still available (apply here).
  • $15.1 billion — Paycheck Protection Program loans provided to 150,000 Colorado employers to keep businesses going and workers paid (read the latest)
  • $1 billion — Amount the state has borrowed from the federal government, as of Aug. 31, to pay jobless benefits to Coloradans on regular unemployment. 

If you were a recipient, hopefully it had an impact on your life. Good or bad, drop me a note and share your story.


TRUST FUND IMPROPRIETIES?

Speaking of the state’s Unemployment Insurance Trust Fund, CDLE provided the latest report on the deficit and the impact of the pandemic. It’s not good. Some highlights:

  • At the end of 2019, the trust fund had $1.1 billion, thanks to employers who paid for unemployment insurance for their workers.
  • Colorado depleted the fund on Aug. 18, 2020, and has since borrowed $1 billion interest free from the Federal Unemployment Account. Interest begins Sept. 7.
  • Improper payments, which prior to the pandemic was 7.63%, spiked to 30.5% in calendar year 2020. These include fraudulent filers and overpayments. Audits continue.
  • Between 2012 and 2020, $99.9 million in overpayments were recovered from claimants.
  • Read the report

Wrapping up pandemic unemployment

As of Aug. 21, there were still 30,072 Coloradans collecting regular unemployment. While some may drop off by Sept. 5, that’s still a lot of people. In 2019, the average number of people on unemployment each week was 18,600. That tells you we haven’t recovered yet.

The pandemic benefits are not getting extended in Colorado. When I reached out to Gov. Jared Polis’ office about it, the emailed response was that the number of initial regular claims have been in decline (down to 3,229 for the week ending Aug. 28, the lowest since the pandemic began). The number of available jobs on ConnectingColorado.com are voluminous (125,996 as of Friday). And more companies are moving to the state and creating good-paying jobs.

“As such, there is no plan to extend federal unemployment benefits,” a spokesperson said.

But for those who were relying on federal aid, there are other options. CDLE has been sharing a lot of them, including supplemental rent payments, health care or just name it.

Here again are the programs ending on Saturday and how many weeks were available:

  • 79 weeks — Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) for gig workers 
  • 53 weeks — Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation (PEUC) extended regular unemployment benefits, which normally last 26 weeks. In total, that’s 79 weeks.
  • 79 weeks — Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation (FPUC) paid a weekly bonus to those eligible for pandemic relief. In 2020, FPUC paid $600 a week between March 29 and July 31. It paid $300 a week between Dec. 26 and Sept. 4.
  • 40 weeks — Mixed Earner Unemployment Compensation (MEUC) paid an extra $100 to certain folks eligible for both regular unemployment and PUA. MEUC payments only started this month in Colorado and are retroactive to Dec. 27.

TODAY’S UNDERWRITER

For some though, pandemic unemployment isn’t quite over yet.  While no one in Colorado can “earn” another day of federal benefits after Sept. 4, the state’s Department of Labor and Employment will continue to keep the door open to new PUA applicants for 30 days. That’s by order of the U.S. Department of Labor.

But one can only claim past unpaid weeks. And if you’re only getting to this now, be aware that CDLE now has dozens of new anti-fraud controls in place so it won’t be easy to try to slip one more application in if you aren’t eligible for it.

Also, if you had requested back payments, once your eligibility is determined, you should be paid after Sept. 4.

MEUC MISTAKE: While this mixed-earner benefit just began (payments start in “early September”) there’s already a big issue. If you were paid the additional $100 but didn’t apply for it or weren’t eligible, don’t spend it! A group of folks have accidentally been paid MEUC, CDLE has confirmed. 

“We are continuing to investigate the scope of the issue and will contact affected claimants directly with more information. Claimants are encouraged not to spend any unexpected benefit payments as any payments made in error may have to be repaid,” a department spokesperson said.

Time to switch to… construction?

Each week I hear from local businesses who share their jobs, joys and struggles. This week, I visited the Colorado Homebuilding Academy and ended up writing a story about the construction industry (check The Sun on Labor Day). This north Denver facility offers boot camps to teach newcomers about the essentials of construction work, offer exposure to jig saws and other tools, and train folks to have the chops to get a job in the industry.

As you might imagine, Colorado’s construction industry needs help. It’s not just a pandemic-induced shortage, but one that’s been building up over the past several years. In fact, that’s how the Academy got its start back in 2017 when Oakwood Homes helped start the nonprofit training program to feed the industry’s future workforce. 

Instructor Dan Silverman (left) assists Rory Hyman during a construction boot camp at the Colorado Homebuilding Academy on Monday, August 20, 2021, in Denver. The Academy teaches construction skills, technical math and power tool usage to attendees, many of which have transitioned into jobs within the housing and construction industry. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun)

“I have employers all the time say, ‘Hey, I need a finished carpenter, I need an estimator, I need somebody from my flooring company, I need electricians, or people who will start on their path to it,” said Damon DiFabio, the Academy’s director. “The jobs are out there. Employers in the construction industry are in need of skilled and unskilled laborers.”

The training program offers four-week boot camps on the basics of construction (yes, you get to handle real construction tools and make stuff). You’ll leave with OSHA-10 certification, a bag of tools and, very likely, a job. If your goal is to get a construction job, tuition fees are waived.

“What gets people in is the opportunity for stable, long term employment at a higher pay,” recruiter Andy Coy said. “Especially because we get a lot of people who are underemployed and unemployed.”

Another nice perk? Kristen Davenport, the school’s career coach. She works with employers and students to place students in open positions. 

There’s a lot right now — she’s trying to fill 60 to 75 right now. But the interesting thing is that she’s finding employers understand people have choices. So they’re trying to be more amenable to today’s workers. She does mock interviews to get students ready and she also preps employers to make sure they’re asking appropriate questions and provide a good fit for the student. 

“They were doing sign-on bonuses and employee referral bonuses and seeing that they didn’t work. So I think now, they’re putting that money into health benefits and those types of things,” she said. “I’ve seen a lot more companies paying 100% of their employees health benefits.”

>> MORE: Colorado Homebuilding Academy

Other bits

It’s Workforce Development Month! The labor department is highlighting what happens at the 52 workforce centers all across the state. We’ve mentioned them before (and here’s a map and list) and during pandemic unemployment, many local centers became go-to sites to get questions answered. They’re still around for those looking for a new job — or potential employees.>> DETAILS

→ Healthcare job fair: Speaking of work, the state’s Workforce Centers are teaming up with the Greater Denver Healthcare Partnership on Wednesday, Sept. 15 for a job fair. It’s all virtual and healthcare employers can get their own virtual booth. Hours are 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. with Veterans getting first entry. >> DETAILS

High demand: Amazon’s answer to delivery driver shortage: Recruit pot smokers >> Bloomberg


If you’re feeling stressed about the end of unemployment benefits, there is other help around. Resources mentioned in this column around the holidays last year are still valid so get help if you need it. Share your stories and stay safe this Labor Day weekend. ~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.

MORE: Read stories on Colorado jobs and unemployment


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