Colorado’s government hopes to offer unemployment benefits within weeks for several new categories of people, including the self-employed, independent contractors and many others whose livelihoods have suffered because of COVID-19. The changes are possible under the federal CARES Act, which Congress sent to the president on Friday.

“We hope to receive federal guidance quickly and are already working on reprogramming the system,” said Cher Roybal Haavind, deputy executive director for the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment.

The bill is set to take effect as soon as President Donald Trump signs it. However, Colorado can’t pay the expanded benefits until it updates the state’s unemployment systems.

People in the newly covered groups should wait to apply until Colorado officials give the signal, according to CDLE.

“We will update our website and notify news outlets when we are ready to accept claims,” Haavind wrote in an email.

Who’s covered by the coronavirus stimulus package?
The federal bill is a sweeping $2.2 trillion stimulus effort. One section dramatically expands the country’s unemployment programs, including temporary new coverage for:

*People diagnosed with COVID-19
*Self-employed people
*Independent contractors
*Gig workers
*People unable to work because they’ve been advised to self-quarantine
*People who couldn’t start an expected new job due to COVID-19
*People caring for family members with COVID-19
*People caring for children whose schools or daycares are closed
*People who must quit their jobs “as a direct result” of COVID-19

The federal bill also offers workers an extra $600 per week in unemployment benefits. That will increase the average person’s benefit from $400 to $1,000 a week. Typically, unemployment replaces only about half of a person’s wages.

Once the changes take effect, the benefits may be retroactively available, meaning that people can collect benefits for any weeks of unemployment they’ve already experienced.

The state also will extend the duration of benefits from 26 weeks to 39 weeks. That change should take effect around mid-April, and it will apply to people who were unemployed prior to the coronavirus outbreak too, Haavind said.

The federal government will pay for the expanded benefits. Normally, unemployment is funded by premiums paid by workers and businesses.

Payments start arriving next week
People who applied for unemployment in the weeks of March 2 and March 9 should start receiving their payments next week, the week of March 30, Haavind said.

It typically takes four to six weeks from application to payment, but CDLE is shaving that time down by waiving certain requirements and rearranging its process.

“Seven to 10 days would be great, but it’s probably more like 10 to 14 days,” for people to start receiving benefits, Haavind said.

Website is working better
Last week, the state’s unemployment website — which is the only way to apply — slowed to a crawl. But it appeared to stabilize this week as Colorado introduced a name-based schedule for people to apply and expanded the computer system’s capacity.

“We’re continuing to see some improved performance with our online claims-taking system,” Haavind said. The state’s now accepting 15,000 to 20,000 unemployment applications per day.

More than 100,000 Coloradans have applied for unemployment insurance benefits in the last two weeks, breaking all previous records for such a short time period.

“I think we’re just seeing the beginning of this, to be honest,” said Ryan Gedney, a senior economist with CDLE.

[By Andrew Kenney via CPR.org]