Colorado’s Unemployment Numbers Will Be Even Worse This Week (But More Help Is Expected)

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
Adding to life’s challenges with coronavirus and social distancing in Denver on Thursday, March 19, 2020. Like all bars ordered closed in Colorado, this one inside Denver Central Market is closed and deserted.

Preliminary figures show 45,000 people filed initial unemployment applications in the first three days of this week in Colorado, a figure that has already doubled last week’s record-breaking numbers.

The rush of new claims comes as more businesses close and as the state improves its unemployment computer systems, allowing more people to complete their applications.

Meanwhile, newly released federal data showed that 19,745 people filed for unemployment in Colorado last week. 

The avalanche of unemployment claims has shattered previous records. In Colorado, the worst week of the Great Recession saw about 8,000 claims. Of course, the 2008 crisis eliminated many more jobs in total, but the U.S. has never seen so many layoffs concentrated in such a short time.

Nationwide, the U.S. Department of Labor counted about 3.3 million new claims, compared to a previous record of about 700,000 in 1982.

This week’s numbers came as Gov. Jared Polis’ statewide remain-at-home order is likely to close more businesses or limit their hours. Additionally, high demand has threatened to overwhelm the state’s unemployment services, resulting in glitches that blocked many people from filing a claim last week.

“I tried, literally, 1 a.m., 2 a.m, 3 a.m., 4 a.m., all different times of the day,” said Mason Turner, 22, who works at an eatery on the Auraria Campus in Denver. “I was really frustrated. Even though I know thousands of people are trying to get through — the uncertainty of not knowing if and when my application would go through — it was frustrating.”

Turner finally succeeded on Tuesday, when his application “went through perfectly.” Several other people told CPR that they were able to get their applications through this week, too. Polis said earlier that the state was working to expand the site’s capacity.

The Colorado Department of Labor and Employment also will speed the delivery of benefits, officials said. They hope to send initial payments within 10 days, instead of four to six weeks. They’ll do that by auditing applications more intensively after they’ve been paid, rather than before.

“We know during these uncertain times there is a high level of stress on so many Coloradans, and benefits like unemployment are a critical lifeline to those who are suddenly finding themselves out of work,” said Joe Barela, executive director of the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment, in a written statement.

“We are continuously reevaluating our systems to expand capacity and enhance stability and are working nonstop to meet the demand.” 

For now, the unemployment program excludes independent contractors, gig workers and many self-employed people. But they would be eligible for unemployment benefits under a federal bill that is expected to become law. The federal Labor Department will likely publish more details on the new rules for those workers. The federal bill also increases unemployment benefits by $600 per week for up to four months, CNBC reported.

An analysis of federal data showed that other states have seen far sharper increases in unemployment — like the 34-fold increase in New Hampshire — but that could change as new data arrives.