More than 150,000 Coloradans could lose unemployment benefits if Congress doesn’t act

CARES Act programs end Dec. 26; state's labor chief emphasizes opportunities at workforce training centers

PUBLISHED: | UPDATED:

In a year when roughly one in four Colorado workers has filed an unemployment claim, a small measure of relief should reach hundreds of thousands of people in the state this week: The money that is landing in accounts weeks before more than 150,000 Coloradans could lose the federal unemployment benefits they are relying on as the COVID-19 pandemic’s third wave continues to ravage the economy.

Gov. Jared Polis announced in late October that the state had found enough money to push out one-time $375 stimulus payments to people who qualified for unemployment benefits of $25 to $500 between March 15 and Oct. 24. Officials with the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment expect roughly 408,000 Coloradans to receive those payments by close of business Friday.

State Sen. Chris Hansen described the stimulus payments and the raft of COVID relief-focused bills the Colorado legislature passed in a special session that closed Wednesday as “hopefully a bridge” to get people who are struggling through the next few months until bigger steps can be taken in the 2021 session.

The impact state lawmakers can have pales in comparison to what Congress could do. There was talk of a bipartisan bill stimulus package worth more than $900 billion in Washington this week, but Congressional leaders have been unable to reach a consensus on anything since the CARES Act passed in late March.

“I think we did the best we could with the resources we had in this special session,” said Hansen, D-Denver. “Of course, we’re all hopeful that we get rapid uptake of the vaccine but there is a huge amount of risk and uncertainty for the economy right now. We basically need Congress and the White House to act.”

The risks for many relying on unemployment benefits in Colorado now are real and immediate. Two programs authorized under the CARES Act are set to expire on Dec. 26, according to the department of labor.

They are the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, or PUA, the program created by the CARES Act to support self-employed people and gig workers, and Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation, a federally funded 13-week benefit extension program that supports people who have used their 26 weeks of state benefits.

State officials estimate 153,000 people will be collecting benefits through those programs when they end. Last week, Colorado’s unemployment office had to shut down the state’s extended benefits program, which also provided 13 weeks of extra support. The number of people in the state covered by unemployment insurance who are now collecting it fell below 5%, the threshold to draw down federal dollars for that program.

“None of us anticipated that we would still be going through this health care crisis and this economic crisis back in March,” Joe Barela, the Colorado labor department’s executive director, said Wednesday. “So we’re are coming up to a cliff where without federal funding (these programs) are not available anymore.”

While joining the chorus of calls for leaders in Washington, D.C., to do something to put money in people’s pockets soon, Barela is also recommending people look into the state’s workforce training centers. The Connecting Colorado website is advertising nearly 80,000 jobs right now, he said, including “location neutral” positions that can be done remotely.

“If people can work, if it is safe for them to work, we would like to see them explore their opportunities if their benefits have run out or about to run out,” Barela said.

Aurora resident David Farris didn’t wait for his job as a sales and marketing manager for a wood paneling manufacturing company to come back. He got his mortgage broker license as has been working for his brother’s business as a loan originator.

Things have been slow so far and Farris is still collecting unemployment. He recently got a letter saying he is coming to the end of his 26 weeks of state benefits. He’s less concerned about that than he is about collecting more than $6,000 he says the state owes him for weeks he was eligible for unemployment this summer but his account was deactivated. Like many people, he said his efforts to contact the CDLE — via phone, direct mail and even fax — have not fixed the problem. He and his wife have been getting by on her income and eating into their savings. He knows many other people who don’t have those options.

“It’s been almost six months that I have been trying to get them to do what they need to do and it’s a joke,” Farris said. “It’s ridiculous and someone needs to be held accountable.”

While the unemployment office has struggled to keep up with the demand this year, Barela said his staff has performed admirably under the circumstances, pushing out more than $6 billion in benefits during the pandemic.

Changes are coming. A modernization of the unemployment claims system is slated for January, installing “this-century technology,” Barela said. All 700 unemployment office employees will have to train on that system over the coming weeks as the labor department seeks to hire a new director for the department. Pervious director Jeff Fitzgerald left in October for a job with the U.S. Department of Labor.

On top of that, Barela is expecting $25 million to flow into the department via a broader state bailout package in 2021 session that starts in January. The money will be put to “reskilling and upskilling” workers in industries upended by the pandemic.

“We are going to go into reemployment mode, making sure we are working with our partners at economic development to focus on growth industries,” he said.