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Economy

What’s Working: 24,000 unemployed Coloradans must pay back pandemic jobless benefits

Plus: More people are returning to work as the state’s unemployment rate drops to 5.9%. But what happened to all the workers?

The Paper Source at the Streets of SouthGlenn advertises for worker on a chalkboard outside of its store. (Tamara Chuang, The Colorado Sun)
  • Credibility:

The COVID-19 pandemic didn’t end on Sept. 4, even though federal unemployment benefits did. Last week, the jobless scene may have seemed quiet to outsiders, but it wasn’t. And this week, it became much worse, as 24,000 folks who’d received pandemic unemployment aid learned they must repay some of the money. But more on that below.

I’ve spent the week interviewing employers, business owners, unemployed Coloradans and workers who finally found a job and are now back at work. Very few blamed the labor shortage on lazy people. 

“I’m troubled by the sort of reflexive trope that I’m seeing on social media that ‘Oh, these people are just collecting unemployment,’” said Rachel Biederman, who runs the marketing department for a Front Range company. 

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Biederman can’t find workers. An open full-time marketing job paying “close to six figures” has been posted for 2.5 months and she’s heard from four applicants. Two lacked technical skills, one dropped out and the fourth got a raise from her existing employer. 

“The people that are making $80,000 to $120,000 a year are not covering their day-to-day expenses with a $450 unemployment check,” she said. “We need to get a little bit more thoughtful about what’s keeping people away from full-time work, and how do we get them to want to go back.”

Employers from all industries have shared that it’s still hard to find enough workers.

Could it be that there just aren’t enough Coloradans out there? 

Where is everyone? 

Tatiana Bailey, an economist and the director of UCCS Economic Forum in the College of Business at the University of Colorado Colorado Springs said there are more job openings in Colorado than unemployed people who can fill them.

“Colorado has 0.8 workers for every available job. In other words we have more jobs than we have people,” she said. “The answer to your question is no, we don’t have enough workers.”

Using data from the Colorado Department of Labor and from private jobs company Burning Glass, economist Tatiana Bailey, director of the UCCS Economic Forum in the College of Business at the University of Colorado Colorado Springs, calculated how many job openings for every unemployed worker. Conclusion: There’s not enough workers in Colorado.

In Colorado Springs, the number is even more out of whack, with 0.77 workers for every open job. Nationwide however, she said there are 1.17 available workers for every open job. 

Businesses have been recovering and new ones opening in Colorado, so that has resulted in more jobs to offset those lost. But workers need more training to move to better jobs and we need to resolve the disconnect in the openings that are out there, she said.

“Now whether the skills always match or whether people are willing to take a job for minimum wage or even $10 an hour is another issue,” she said. “We have so many businesses that are doing well, we have a ton of job openings, and even though we are also a state with a lot of in-migration, the worker side of the equation is just not meeting  the demand.”

As it turns out, August saw a drop in the number of Colorodans who work or are looking for a job. According to the latest Census survey of households, the state’s labor force dropped by 2,300 workers last month, and is now at 3,193,200. 

This brought the state’s labor force participation rate to 68.3%, which divides the number of people working or looking for work by the working age population.

The rate is slightly down from July’s 68.4% but compared to other states, it still put Colorado at the  “eighth fastest recovery rate” between February 2020 and August, Ryan Gedney, senior economist with the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment, said during a press conference on Friday. The national rate was 61.7%.

Gedney said he doesn’t know for sure why people stopped working but it could be for health reasons, retirement or a change of mindset. 

“Perhaps (it’s) the argument that life is too short,” he said. “It could be that your housing price appreciation (has gone well) if you own a home, your stock portfolio or 401(k) may be looking well. Those could be reasons why certain older demographics have decided to stay out of the labor force.”

I’ll be tackling more reasons about where Colorado’s workers went in a future story. But if you made the decision to retire early, or had to leave a job because of a child care situation, or any other reason, share your thoughts with me in this convenient form that helps me keep track of people who contact me. >> What’s your work story?

→ It’s not just Colorado. The Bureau of Labor and Statistics said the U.S. has a record 10.9 million job openings. And even states that ended federal jobless benefits early face shortages, Quartz reported. >> STORY

→ Need free job training? The state’s Workforce Centers offer free job training for a variety of potential careers. The Pikes Peak Workforce Center offers an upskilling program open to nearly anyone called #UpSkillPikesPeak. >> Colorado Workforce Centers

Colorado economy check

Colorado’s unemployment rate fell to 5.9% in August, which is the first time it’s been below 6% since March 2020. The national rate is 5.2%.

That takes into account how many people are unemployed and looking for work versus people with a job. But since the new rate is based on data from early August, we have to look at the most recent unemployment numbers to see what September is telling us so far. 

And so far, the number of new weekly unemployment claims continues to decline. For the week ending Sept. 11, it was 1,808 — or less than half the weekly average for August. And that is below the weekly average for 2019.

While those who were eligible for federal pandemic benefits can still apply until Oct. 4, those folks can only request past benefits. Department of Labor charts don’t show any new filings for the week of Sept. 11. 

But the state did offer an update on how much in unemployment benefits have been paid since March 29, 2020. As of Sept. 11, that amount is $11.4 billion.

Unemployment nightmare: Pay back benefits!

Federal unemployment has been a challenge since Day One since no state labor department had ever paid jobless benefits to workers who weren’t on typical employer-employee payrolls. Coloradans on unemployment — more than 400,000 received a payment in July 2020 — rode the roller coaster too. And the nightmare didn’t end on Sept. 4, when federal benefits ended. 

It got dramatically worse for folks like Dahlia Weinstein, a freelance writer in Greenwood Village. As someone eligible for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance for gig workers, she struggled this year to file her documents, get her ID verified and appeal an overpayment judgement last spring. 

She thought a letter from the labor department this week would be good news about her appeal. Instead, she started crying. The state was demanding repayment of $18,779 in benefits because she didn’t submit the required documents in time. But she said she did — and she has the screenshots, her email communication and and even audio recordings to prove it.

Getting a bill for $18,000 shocked Dahlia Weinstein, a freelance writer, who lost her income during the pandemic. She started crying when she opened the letter and plans to appeal the overpayment of unemployment benefits because she took careful screenshots, made backups and even recorded calls to the unemployment call center to document that she had uploaded the required documents that somehow have gone missing. (Provided by Dahlia Weinstein)

“But I already uploaded everything I had when I filed the appeal,” she wrote in an email. “In fact, I submitted so many documents, I had to resize most of them because the UI system would not accept files over a certain size or format. I received no confirmations for the uploads or any follow-up details regarding any of my submissions. I heard nothing about my appeal in June, July or August. The appeal was always ‘pending.’  So how is it that I ‘failed to respond to the division’s request regarding your employment, self-employment, or attachment to the labor force’?”

Weinstein wasn’t the only one. I’ve heard from others and apparently there are a lot of posts on one of the private Facebook groups for unemployed Coloradans. 

So, what happened?

Department of Labor officials told me they’ve been sending messages to PUA workers with missing documents since June 15. Because of new federal requirements, rules this year required more proof that gig workers were actually gig workers and looking for jobs — and folks had 90 days to send the required information.

The Colorado Department of Labor and Employment said it notified folks on Pandemic Unemployment Assistance on June 15, July 15, Aug. 20 and Sept. 11 that more documents were needed to prove eligibility for the federal benefits. By Sept. 14, more than 18,000 PUA users who didn’t have the appropriate documents uploaded learned they must pay back all of their federal benefits received since Dec. 20, 2020. (Provided by the Colorado Department of Labor)

“If they attached documents to another issue on their claim, the division would not know to look at any other issue for such documentation,” a department spokesperson said in an email. 

It was an automated process that looked at people’s files and determined if a response was needed. Unemployed workers had till Sept. 13 to turn everything in. Failure to do so would result in all past benefits being revoked. 

On Sept. 14, the new batch of letters alleging overpayment began.

According to CDLE, more than 24,000 claimants must repay back their benefits. The majority were PUA accounts, at 18,489, but there were also 3,421 folks on regular unemployment and 2,227 on extended pandemic benefits that were deemed to have been overpaid.

They have two options: pay it back or appeal.

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“No corrections will occur without an appeal being made,” a department spokesperson said in an email. “If a claimant disagrees with a determination that has been issued, they need to file an appeal. … If (PUA documents) were uploaded prior to the due date, then the division will review those documents and may issue a corrected determination if it is warranted. If the determination issued was not in error, then the appeal will be scheduled to move forward and the overpayment established on the account remains.”

And since the process was automated and took place earlier this week, division officials said it “has not identified that any determinations were issued in error.”

Weinstein, meanwhile, is now extra stressed and must put in more time and energy into it at the same time she is trying to get her business restarted. 

“Literally, everyone just ran out of benefits and now they’re asking me to repay what has already been spent,” Weinstein said.

I continue to hear from folks socked with massive overpayments. Please start your appeal and know that the state will set up repayment programs so you don’t have to pay it all back at once. I’ll continue to watch this and see if things change, but for those impacted, keep me updated on the appeals process and rulings in your favor or not. 

Federal pandemic relief kept more people out of poverty last year compared to 2019. “Stimulus payments moved 11.7 million out of poverty,” the Associated Press reported. >> STORY 


Every week I write this, there is so much to share. I just run out of time to write it all down into a story. I’m still collecting your true stories of the labor shortage and would really appreciate hearing from job seekers who don’t respond to employers requests for interviews or even stop showing up for work. Are you out there? Let me know! ~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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