Linda Madigan felt relieved on Monday, a day after the $908 billion federal COVID-19 aid package was finally signed following a week of protest by the president. But she knows it could be several weeks before she and some 280,000 other Coloradans receive a cent in extended unemployment aid because the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment must reprogram its computer system to implement the new plan. “It’s a scary thing that there is no money coming in at all,” said Madigan, who lost her job as an account manager in the tradeshow industry when everything shut down in March. “I’m just hoping that within the next six weeks or four weeks, hopefully, that we’ll see something from (the labor department).” With or without President Donald Trump’s delay in signing the bill, there will be a pause on pandemic or extended unemployment payments nationwide. Had Congress passed the bill earlier, state agencies could have implemented the changes before the CARES Act programs ended on Saturday. (Those still in their 26 weeks of regular unemployment should see no delay.) State Department of Labor officials previously acknowledged that it will be “likely later January or into February” before payments resume. The state must wait for technical guidance from the federal Department of Labor and then reprogram its computer system. “While programming will start as soon as possible, the components will be variable in their complexity,” an agency spokesperson said. “Therefore, we expect a progressive rollout over several weeks. We don’t have exact dates to share yet but hope to quickly begin evaluating requirements once we get guidance.”

Four-weeks or more wait

After the CARES Act passed in late March, it took nearly four weeks before pandemic benefits were paid in Colorado. The state had to set up a whole new system to distribute benefits for the first time to gig workers and the self-employed, as directed by the CARES Act. That first week, 51,000 people applied for the federal Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, or PUA. During the Great Recession, it sometimes took 10 weeks to reprogram the system following congressional changes. Policymakers in Colorado have approved other measures to take care of folks who’ve seen their income decline. Earlier this month, a special state legislative session added more than $50 million to a housing fund that helps tenants and landlords get rents paid. In November, Gov. Jared Polis approved one-time, $375 stimulus checks to people who had made an unemployment claim and who earned no more than $52,000. Approximately $153 million has been paid to 408,000 people and there will be no additional payments, according to the state labor department. Polis also extended an eviction moratorium to Dec. 31. The new relief bill extends the federal eviction moratorium by a month to Jan. 31.

50 weeks of benefits

For those on unemployment, the new relief bill extends PUA and regular unemployment by 11 weeks, or until March 13. That means everyone on regular unemployment or PUA is eligible for up to 50 weeks of jobless pay. During the Great Recession, benefits for some lasted 99 weeks. If someone on regular unemployment hasn’t exhausted their 50 weeks by March 13, their pandemic benefits would continue until April 5. The new relief bill also provides an extra $300 a week for those on unemployment between Dec. 27 and March 13. Even if these payments, called Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation, aren’t available immediately, they will be paid retroactively to Dec. 27 for those who are eligible, according to the state’s labor site. While there is some confusing language on whether the PUA and PEUC extensions also start on the 27th, Michele Evermore, with the National Employment Law Project, said the federal labor agency is ruling that states should pay out benefits starting this week. “So, people should expect to get paid for this week if they qualify,” said Evermore, a policy analyst, in an email. “However, it will take states a couple to a few weeks to get their systems reprogrammed to pay this benefit, so in that sense, there will be a delay, but I expect people to get paid for all weeks.” Madigan, who’s already used up 39 weeks of regular unemployment plus two weeks of PUA, is grateful and has tried to save up some money as she looks for a new job. But by the time this new unemployment relief ends in March, the COVID vaccine still won’t be widely available and she’s pretty sure her job in the tradeshow industry won’t return before the summer — at the earliest. “Eleven weeks isn’t really that much time,” said Madigan, who has found answers and camaraderie in a private Facebook group of unemployed workers. “For me, I’m probably gonna have to do some kind of different industry here, which I’ve been sending out resumes, but nothing yet. I do believe that the new administration, the Biden administration, will come up with another package of some sort. And maybe some stimulus checks that are above $600 to help people bridge us over to the summer or fall when things might look better.” To meet Trump’s coronavirus relief demand, the U.S. House on Monday approved boosting the stimulus to $2,000 payments. The measure now heads to the Senate. According to the state, about 21,500 people had exhausted their benefits before Dec. 26. They now will get 11 more weeks, and join the thousands of others who saw their benefits stop because the programs ended. The Department of Labor is advising people who are eligible for extended unemployment to be patient as the state updates its system. People, however, will see “exhausted” on their account because the programs have ended. The system also will not allow anyone to make pandemic payment requests or file claims. The application has been removed, the state labor department said. More than 50,000 Coloradans filed new claims for unemployment in the week ended Dec. 19. They joined 253,333 who made continued claims as of Dec. 12. *By Tamara Chuang, The Colorado Sun*

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