DENVER – More than 40,000 self-employed or gig worker Coloradans filed initial unemployment claims for Federal Pandemic Unemployment Assistance last week in the first week it was available – on top of another 38,384 Coloradans who filed regular unemployment claims last week.
Including those federal PUA claims, more than 358,000 initial claims were filed over the past five weeks in Colorado – which would account for more than 10% of the state’s adult workforce as it stood in February.
The Colorado Department of Labor and Employment said it has paid out more than 75% of all unemployment claims filed since March 15. Unemployment Insurance Division Chief Jeff Fitzgerald said some people who applied for regular unemployment benefits between April 16 and 29 will not be able to request their first payment until at least this Sunday.
The department said it paid out $247.4 million last week in Pandemic Unemployment Compensation – the $600 a week federal benefit paid to all people receiving regular or PUA unemployment benefits, which was backdated to March 29.
The CDLE paid out $86.1 million in regular unemployment benefits last week, bringing the total paid out over the last four weeks to $252 million. The average weekly benefits paid in 2020 in the weeks beforehand was $8.7 million, the CDLE said.
During the peak of the Great Recession in 2009-10, the department paid out an average of $19 million a week in regular benefits. The monthly record came in May 2009, when the state paid out $102.8 million in benefits – a record April 2020 will certainly break.
Additionally, a total of $28.7 million in PUA unemployment benefits were paid to gig workers and self-employed workers in Colorado last week.
Regular unemployment benefits come out of the state’s unemployment trust fund and the federal PUA and PUC benefits are paid out and reimbursed by the federal government.
Officials address call center issues, return-to-work guidance
CDLE officials said in a briefing Thursday morning that people who were still having issues filing for PUA versus regular unemployment likely had over $2,500 in W-2 wages sometime in the last 18 months – something written into the federal CARES Act that forces those people to exhaust their regular unemployment benefits before they are eligible for regular benefits.
And though the CDLE has 150 staffers working at its main call center and another 90 contract staffers working at a separate call center devoted to PUA claims questions, the officials acknowledged there have still been issues with people not being able to get through.
The CDLE has added a form to its website where people can request a callback from CDLE officials within a business day or two. People can find that form here. The department has also added a chatbot that answers frequently asked questions to its unemployment site.
The officials also warned people trying to get around that system that they would be committing fraud if they enter false information – such as a fake Social Security Number – in fields on the forms, which will be caught by their credit and fraud check system.
And with the state’s safer at home phase going into effect this week for much of the state and on May 9 for most of the metro area, they tried to work through questions about people currently on unemployment who might refuse to come back to work once their workplace reopens.
The CDLE has put up guidance for workers and employers on return-to-work on its website, as well as a from employers can use to submit questions about employees refusing to return to work if they are offered their position back or taken off furlough.
Fitzgerald said officials were “sensitive to both sides of the equation” regarding if an employee does not feel safe returning to work and that the department was working to balance resuming economic functions and keeping workers safe and healthy.
CDLE Deputy Executive Director Cher Haavind said the department had received submissions from about 40 employers with concerns that their employees were choosing not to return to work.
Fitzgerald said that officials would collect facts about each job refusal situation – including what the current local guidance is in that county or municipality, what the conditions and standards of the job were to begin with, whether or not an employer is taking reasonable steps to give employees a safe work environment, and whether or not an employee is a part of a vulnerable population.
CDLE Senior Economist Ryan Gedney said that it was too soon to know whether Colorado had already seen its peak in initial unemployment claims, which were over 100,000 in regular filings the second week of April. But he said even if they continue to drop, numbers above 30,000 or 50,000 per week would still be “historically high.”
You can find more information on unemployment in Colorado at the state’s website.