DENVER (AP) — Nearly half a million people in Colorado have filed for state and federal unemployment benefits since the coronavirus pandemic hit in mid-March, double the number seen during the Great Recession, state labor officials said Thursday.

Colorado has distributed roughly $1.65 billion in unemployment benefits since the end of March, including $850 million in federal funds supplementing state benefits as well as payments to gig workers and contractors, officials said.

Colorado’s unemployment rate has surged to a record 11.3% in April as the U.S. economy — and its workers — bear the weight of the pandemic. Colorado’s food service, hospitality, retail and health care industries were hardest hit by health orders that closed businesses to stem the spread of the virus.

Nationally, roughly 2.1 million people applied for unemployment benefits last week, a sign that companies are still slashing jobs even as more businesses reopen and recall laid-off employees.

Since March 14, Colorado workers filed an estimated 490,000 claims for regular or federally funded unemployment, the department said.

Over that period, the state processed claims for nearly 16% of its workforce eligible for aid. One in 10 eligible employees were receiving benefits as of May 16, the U.S. Employment and Training Administration said. The administration is an arm of the U.S. labor department.

The number of new people applying for benefits in Colorado last week continued a recent decline. Still, the state paid $95.3 million in regular unemployment benefits — up from $88.8 million the week before. It paid an average $19 million weekly during the height of the Great Recession.

State labor department spokeswoman Cher Haavlind said the agency still receives as many as 20,000 calls a day for assistance. Officials are training 85 new call center employees to help with the volume and updating the department’s website for workers and employers.

As some businesses reopen and call back laid-off employees, some workers are refusing to return because they do not think it is safe, either because of working conditions or vulnerability to the virus among themselves or others at home.

Employers have reported about 1,100 cases of people refusing to return to work, said Jeff Fitzgerald, director of the department’s unemployment division. It has reviewed 869 of those reports and denied roughly 16% of worker claims in them, he said. The decisions can be appealed, and the department considers whether employers offer a safe working environment.

Because of the pandemic, requirements that benefit recipients certify their efforts to find work were eased. Fitzgerald said that will change in June for recipients of state and federal aid.

Fitzgerald said the department will consider factors such as a recipient’s efforts to enhance their work skills at home, networking and use of workforce centers to help job seekers.

Haavlind said it appears some workers are opting to return to work even if their hours and pay are cut, opting for job security over temporary and partial wage replacement, she said.

For most people, the coronavirus causes mild to moderate symptoms that clear up in two to three weeks. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness and death.

*by AP News via Westport News*