Since the coronavirus struck Colorado in mid-March, nearly half a million residents have filed for some form of unemployment. Before the pandemic, the previous monthly record for benefits paid out was $102.8 million in May of the Great Recession.
In April 2020 alone, $315 million in regular benefits were paid out.
The state did offer two pieces of modest good news with the release of the latest weekly claims figures. First, those Initial unemployment claims have continued to decline for the sixth week in a row. For the weekend that ended May 23, there were 15,603 applications filed. The week before had 17,825.
Second, the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment announced Thursday new ways to accommodate the volume of people applying for unemployment benefits.
Even as claims have fallen, the state has struggled to keep pace.
Before the COVID-19 era, the department responded to 1,000 to 1,200 calls per day. The state now sees anywhere from 15,000 to 20,000 calls a day.
According to spokeswoman Cher Haavind, the call center continues to struggle because of the complexity of eligibility within the unemployment insurance program. She also noted the large population of people who have never been on unemployment who are now filing. A lot of time has been dedicated to teaching these claimants how to file.
“When it comes to financial aid and assistance, people feel comforted talking to somebody,” she said.
The department will continue to hire more call center agents. There are 85 temporary workers currently in training that will soon be extra labor.
In addition to a revamped online system and an introduced chat box, they have also claimants to fill out a callback request form.
“These are things that once somebody gets into the system, it doesn’t take a lot of time on the agent’s part,” Haavind said. “It’s that traffic into the system to deal with these issues that could be pretty easily resolved.”
How-to videos will soon be posted on the department’s website as well.
The first two will describe how to get benefits whether someone is applying for regular unemployment insurance or federal Pandemic Unemployment Aid. A third video will provide guidance about which benefit to apply for.
Another way CDLE hopes to tackle demand is with in-person appointments starting June 8 People can begin to make appointments online as of June 1. Haavind expects they will see about 40 to 50 claimants daily.
With Colorado continuing to slowly open its economy, there has been an increase in job refusals. As of Thursday, there are 1,100 submissions from employers. Many employers make multiple submissions. Out of that number, the state has reviewed 869 and has about a 16 percent denial of benefit rate.
Denials happen when a worker can’t provide evidence that they are a part of a vulnerable population, caring for someone who is vulnerable or other issues that prevent them from going back to work.
Claimants can also expect Colorado to reinstate the work search requirement to receive benefits. Before the pandemic, work search meant applying for a job. Now, that definition will be expanded to enhancing skills, networking or using services via workforce centers.
The state is paying benefits to more than 80 percent of people who have filed a claim.