Unemployment insurance is designed to be a stopgap measure, a way for people who have lost a job, wages or hours through no fault of their own to make ends meet for a short period of time.
In Colorado, the average weekly benefit pencils out to just $400, according to the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment.
Like during the Great Recession, unemployment benefits are now taking on a critical, expanded role during the double-barrel crisis of the COVID-19 pandemic and the economic chaos that has spun off from it. The life preserver is now being looked at as a life raft with the futures of countless businesses and jobs tied the how quickly the pandemic can be brought under control and what society looks like when that happens.
“It’s urgent,” Kevin Saunders, a 29-year-old Denver resident who applied for unemployment last week after being laid off from his job at an IHOP said Friday. “I got my last check yesterday. I spent it all on food and water, so within the next two weeks to 30 days, I don’t have too much of a backup plan.”
Federal leaders are feeling that urgency after almost 3.3 million Americans applied for unemployment of the course of the week ending March 21.
On Friday, President Donald Trump signed a $2.2 trillion financial relief package aimed at softening the blow of the pandemic. The legislation included provisions of upping unemployment benefits across the nation by $600 a week beyond what individual states are paying for four months, expanding eligibility to include previously uncovered gig workers and self-employed people and extending benefits by 13 weeks beyond what a given state pays, according to the office of U.S. Rep. Diana DeGette of Denver.
The increase in need in Colorado is already staggering.
During the week ending March 21, 19,745 Coloradans filed new unemployment claims. That shattered the state’s previous single-week record of 7,749 new claims filed when the impacts of the Great Recession reached their zenith in January 2010. The sky-high total only hinted at the demand.
After making system upgrades and adding 90 staffers to its call center last week, the state labor department fielded 61,000 new unemployment applications between last Monday and Thursday. Not every application will result in a new claim after eligibility is sorted out but the number blows by the 25,000 applications filed between March 16-20.
Combining the numbers from the prior two weeks, more than 2.6% of the state’s roughly 3.2 million active workers filed unemployment applications in an 11-day span. That’s higher than the state’s total unemployment rate for February, a record low 2.5%.
“I would say we are just seeing the beginning of this, honestly,” Colorado labor department senior economist Ryan Gedney told a conference call of reporters Friday. “It’s extremely difficult to see the tail.”
Here is a breakdown of key questions about the state’s critical unemployment lifeline:
Who is eligible for benefits?
Like Saunders, many people who have applied for unemployment insurance in Colorado in recent weeks are doing so for the first time.
The labor department is preparing to launch a new landing page for its unemployment website, coloradoui.gov, that spokeswoman Cher Haavind expects will make it easier for employers and workers to find information. According to a frequently asked questions document shared with reporters this week, some of the base requirements for benefits are:
- The applicant earned at least $2,500 (including tips) between October 2018 and September 2019.
- The applicant is now working less than 32 hours per week and earning less than the weekly benefit amount on their claim.
- The applicant is able and available to return to work for their employer when they can open or return to normal operations if they are job attached.
The state isn’t ready to accept applications from gig workers and self-employed people as it awaits federal guidance. It expects that to begin in April after doing some work last week to prepare.
“It means some added complexity in determining who gets what amount based on circumstances of their unemployment,” Haavind said Thursday. “We are already working with our vendors to see what reprogramming would be needed within the system.”
How do you apply?
There are two ways to file in Colorado: online through the state’s beleaguered by but improving coloradui.gov website or by calling 303-318-9000.
People whose last name begins with the letters A through M are asked only to file online on Sundays, Tuesdays, Thursdays or after noon on Saturdays. People with last names starting with N through Z are asked to file Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays or before noon on Saturdays.
Call center hold times exceeded two hours at points two weeks ago, but the state plans to add another 90 call center and document handling specialists to its office by April 3 to manage the load.
The labor department is now outfitted to accept between 15,000 and 20,000 applications per day, Haavind said.
What has changed at the state and federal levels?
The impact of Friday’s massive relief bill is still being ironed out but Gov. Jared Polis issued an executive order on March 20 that has already resulted in emergency rule changes for the state’s unemployment insurance division.
The standard one-week waiting period for benefits has been waived and the requirement that people receiving benefits look for work has also been suspended. Applicants are still required to register for work on connectingcolorado.com website or with a local workforce center.
Haavind said the labor department is confident it can get people approved for benefits their first payments within 10 to 14 days.
The state currently caps benefits at 26 weeks. Haavind said that to qualify for that 13-week federally funded extension, Colorado will have to see a 10% increase in its unemployment rate in January through March when compared to October through December. The labor department won’t know for sure if that has happened until sometime in April but it appears all but certain at this point.
Workers will then have a 39-week lifeline.
How is unemployment funded and how long will Colorado’s money last?
Unemployment insurance is funded through premiums paid by employers on the first $13,100 of wages they pay to each employee, according to the 2019 annual report on the state’s unemployment insurance trust fund.
As of a month ago, the trust fund had $1.1 billion in it and was estimated to be solvent for 18 months, according to Haavind. But that’s when new weekly claims were in the 2,000 range. The surge will require recalculating.
“We have a team that will be looking at modeling and solvency as we look at initial claims increase over the next few weeks to months,” she said.
The 2019 trust fund report included a projection for the fund balance should the country experience a severe recession beginning in 2020. That showed the fund being totally depleted before March 2021 and more than $800 million underwater by March 2022.
If that happens, it would not be the first time the trust fund has run dry. Between 1982-85, the state borrowed $221 million from the Federal Unemployment Account to pay claims and paid back $15 million in interest, according to a state labor economist. Between 2010-12, Colorado borrowed $1.1 billion and paid $21 million in interest before issuing $630 million in bonds in 2012 to pay off the feds and bring premium rates down more quickly. Those bonds were paid off in May 2017.
Haavind emphasized that the federal government will be paying for the enhanced and extended benefits enacted Friday and that it is there as a backstop to the state’s trust fund.
“The state has never failed to pay unemployment even during the depths of the recession because every state is eligible to borrow from the feds,” she said.