Unprecedented Wave Of Unemployment Hits Colorado

Quiet DIA During Coronavirus
Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
Business at Denver International Airport had a noticeable quieter feel Tuesday afternoon, March 17, 2020, during the coronavirus outbreak. The security maze was almost empty.

Colorado’s government is struggling to keep pace with unemployment claims as the shock of the coronavirus shutdown hits workers in several sectors.

"Never before in Colorado have we had such a high volume of impacted workers," said Joe Barela, executive director of the Colorado Department of Labor and Environment.

Daily data shows a sharp rise in unemployment claims amid the pandemic. For comparison, the state received only about 400 unemployment claims on Monday, March 9.

A week later, the state reported 3,900 claims in one day.

And on Tuesday, there were a staggering 6,800 claims by 10 a.m. 

The surge in unemployment claims came as Gov. Jared Polis ordered a temporary shutdown of ski resorts and restaurants — measures that health experts say will slow the spread of the virus and minimize the chances that hospitals are overwhelmed. Meanwhile, an oil glut is draining the drilling industry and air travel is collapsing.

The state's computer systems are straining under the load, resulting in glitches when people try to file their claims online.  CDLE leaders suggested using the “save” function frequently.

“There have been some technical challenges. We’re working through that,” said Jeff Fitzgerald, director of the Division of Unemployment Insurance.

Unemployment claims allow workers to replace 55 percent of their wages when they lose work. The benefit is only available to people with legal immigration status in the United States.

Colorado economists hope that the economic damage is concentrated in the next four months, rather than dragging out for years. But the loss of business income already is expected to slice more than $1 billion from state government revenues over the next 16 months.

Last week, Polis said that the state might use unemployment insurance to replace workers' wages if they needed extended sick leave. But CDLE is focusing now on the wave of job losses.

“Part of our focus is not duplicating efforts that are happening at the federal level,” Fitzgerald said, referring to the federal Families First Coronavirus Response Act.

“We’re looking to see if those resources are made available by Congress to cover such actions.”

The bill in Congress would offer paid sick leave to some workers, but it would exempt millions of workers at the smallest and largest businesses. It faces criticism from across the political spectrum.

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