Coronavirus has turned Colorado’s economy upside down for countless workers. Just weeks ago, employees were in high demand across industries. But as the crisis hit, roughly 25,000 people applied for unemployment in a single week, while countless more were still trying.
And the situation is changing fast. Colorado officials are working on emergency rules that could change who qualifies, and a federal bill could offer new benefits, too.
“This is a time where nothing’s off the table, and we’re really looking for ways to be innovative to meet this unprecedented situation,” said Cher Roybal Haavind, deputy executive director for the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment.
In the meantime, CPR has received questions from dozens of newly unemployed and underemployed people about what benefits are available and how it works. To answer them, we turned to state officials and private employment attorneys.
Who can apply?
Unemployment benefits are available to people who lose their jobs or suffer a significant reduction in hours or pay through “no fault of their own."
Many who have been laid off as a result of COVID-19 will be eligible, but there are a lot of variables. Experts’ general advice is to apply and see what happens — but don’t count on receiving unemployment, especially for more complex work situations.
“Go ahead and file it and let them make a determination. You have a right to file ... an unemployment claim,” said employment attorney Ralph Torres. “Whether you get it is a different story.”
Only people in the U.S. legally may collect the benefit.
You'll only qualify if you earned at least $2,500 in a recent one-year period. That qualification period for current claims is Oct. 2018 through Sept. 2019. Beginning on April 5, that period changes to Jan. 2019 through Dec. 2019.
If you don't qualify in that period, you can also use the "alternate" period, which is the four most recent completed calendar quarters. Currently, that's Jan. 2019 through Dec. 2019. Here's a deeper explanation.
Can independent contractors collect unemployment?
No. The program generally doesn’t help freelancers and people working for platforms such as Uber in Colorado.
According to CDLE: “Generally speaking, gig workers are independent contractors, which means the businesses for whom they work are not paying unemployment premiums. Thus, those workers would not qualify.”
What if I’m a seasonal, intermittent or part-time worker?
Ski-resort workers and other temporary employees are likely to qualify for unemployment benefits, according to CDLE.
Substitute teachers have a different situation. They may qualify, depending on their wages and how long they’ve been doing the job.
When should I apply?
Workers can apply for unemployment as soon as they stop working. If your hours have been significantly reduced, you can apply when the new schedule takes effect.
If you expect a job loss in the near future, CDLE advises waiting until it happens before filing your paperwork.
How do I apply?
CDLE offers two phone hotlines: 303-318-9000 or 1-800-388-5515. Operators can guide you through the process, but they cannot apply for you. This can be helpful for people with unusual cases, but you’ll likely face long waits.
“If you have a complicated separation, such as partial separation from your employer, it is helpful to ask someone,” Haavind said
Some of the state’s workforce centers are closed or soon-to-close due to COVID-19, but some may still offer advice over the phone. Find your local center and call for information.
How much money will I receive? And for how long?
Unemployment can replace about 55 percent of your average weekly wages, with a maximum benefit of roughly $600 per week.
An estimator is available online. The benefit can last up to 26 weeks, but the state is moving to extend that to 39 weeks. However, it's unclear if that change will help people who were already receiving benefits before the crisis hit.
The average benefit is about $400 per week.
I got an error message when I tried to file for UI. What’s up?
The MyUI system has intermittently crashed under heavy demand throughout this week, and glitches are frequent. CDLE recommends applying late at night or early in the morning. Use the “save” function frequently. Some people have had success only after resubmitting their information many times.
We don’t know when the state will resolve these problems.
“We have staff working on this around the clock, and we also know that there are certain obstacles to ensuring full capacity and stability in a system that has never seen this demand,” Haavind said.
How long does it take to receive an unemployment payment?
It typically takes four to six weeks from application to first payment. Payments arrive by debit card or by direct bank deposit.
State officials are trying to speed that up to about seven to 10 days. That could happen early in April.
“That’s our priority,” Haavind said.
One option is to process all of the claims from a company in one batch, rather than processing them individually. The state is also asking federal officials to potentially ease up its requirements, to allow “flexible policies and rules so that we can meet the surge of demands.”
It’s a huge challenge.
“The person claiming benefits has to establish that they lost their job through no fault of their own,” said employment attorney Brian Stutheit. “That requires that a clerk ... assess whether the employee was at fault. And I don’t know they’re going to do that with 7,000 claims in a day.”
Do restaurant tips count toward my unemployment benefit?
They should, but it depends. If you or your employer have been tracking those tips and paying taxes on them, you should be able to claim them.
“Tips are considered wages and your employer should have included tips when reporting your wages,” CDLE told us.
But if you’ve been collecting cash tips without reporting them as income, you’re probably out of luck, experts said.
“If the employee has been keeping tips, and not declaring them as taxable income, the employee will be hard-pressed to establish that those tips should be the basis to increase benefits,” Stutheit said.
The question is whether you can “substantiate” the wages you're claiming. The state compares your application to records reported by employers.
Do I have to continue searching for work during this time?
Not right now.
Normally, Colorado’s unemployment rules require people to prove that they’re looking for a new job continuously. But the state has waived that requirement amid the COVID-19 outbreak. Look for instructions when you receive your benefit.
What if my work is temporarily closed?
Yes. You may qualify for unemployment if your employer temporarily shuts its doors, as many restaurants and entertainment venues are doing. This is commonly known as a "furlough."
I haven’t been laid off, but my hours were cut dramatically. What now?
Yes, you may qualify in this situation. You can receive benefits if you’re working fewer than 32 hours and earning less than 55 percent of your usual wage. You will only qualify for a partial benefit.
Can I qualify for unemployment if I’m on unpaid sick leave?
No, according to CDLE: “If you are off work because you are unable to work because you are sick, you do not qualify under current standards."
The state is working on emergency rules to cover this situation too. A federal law taking effect April 2 also will require many employers to offer two weeks of paid leave for many COVID-19 reasons, including quarantine and child care. That law is called the Families First Coronavirus Response Act.
And, again, it may be worth applying anyway. Each situation is different.
What if I work for a church?
Churches and other houses of worship are exempt from paying unemployment premiums, which means their employees may not qualify for unemployment benefits.
Sometimes, employers may illegally fail to pay premiums. In that case, the state may still pay benefits to employees while pursuing back-taxes from the company, attorneys said. That’s especially common in construction, Stutheit said.
What if I had to leave my job because I’m caring for my kids while school is closed?
For now, you likely don’t qualify. But many employers will be required to offer two weeks of paid leave for this situation under the new federal law.
Meanwhile, the state has launched the Colorado Emergency Child Care Collaborative. It’s meant to provide child care for health care providers, public safety employees, and people working at care facilities.
There are so many people who need UI right now. Is Colorado in danger of running out of money?
Colorado has $1.1 billion in its unemployment fund. That’s enough to cover 18 months of benefits in a more typical market.
In the Great Recession, the federal government had to bail out states when they ran out of unemployment money. But even then, Colorado was able to get coverage for all the unemployed workers on its rolls.
“In the history of Colorado’s unemployment insurance program, we’ve never failed to pay benefits,” Haavind said.
This article was updated on March 24, 2020.