Almost 300,000 Coloradans Will Lose Unemployment Benefits After Christmas Even If A New Federal Stimulus Passes

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
A cyclist passes by holiday lights off Platte Street in Denver on Thursday, Dec. 3, 2020.

Unemployment programs meant to support people who lost their jobs because of COVID-19 will end next week, leaving hundreds of thousands without aid during one of the most critical points in the pandemic.

Colorado’s Department of Labor and Employment says about 280,000 people who were eligible for or receiving benefits will stop getting benefits on Dec. 26. That’s the last payable week for federal programs set up through the CARES Act. 

Gig workers, independent contractors and people who are self-employed, and were eligible for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, will see their aid end. In addition, people who were on Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation, which gave workers an additional 13 weeks of unemployment benefits will also stop receiving them.

Congress might pass another stimulus bill before Christmas. But even if a stimulus does pass in the next week, it will take several more weeks before the state can start getting that aid out to people, said Cher Haavind, chief communications officer for the department. That means a lag in benefits even if Congress acts.

Haavind predicts people won’t see benefits from a stimulus until late January or even February at the earliest, since the state has to wait for guidance from the federal labor department on how to reprogram its systems.

“During the Great Recession, it took up to 10 weeks to reprogram our systems because of the old technology,” she said. 

The number of people who filed for unemployment in Colorado was up again last week, with 19,854 regular UI initial claims and more than 20,000 Pandemic Unemployment Assistance claims. The state paid $95 million in total weekly benefits. Unemployment claims have been consistently rising since the fall.

“With overall claims, we are seeing a significant uptick, both in initial claims and continued claims,” said state economist Ryan Gedney. “Benefit levels are still extremely high and payment levels are still extremely high.” 

The state has paid about $412 million in regular UI benefits over the last 11 weeks. That’s more than the annual amount of UI benefits the department paid out in 2019, Gedney said. Regular UI benefit payments will exceed $2.5 billion for 2020, with much of that money coming in pass-through from the federal government’s coronavirus stimulus bills.

Although benefit and payment levels have been high, Colorado’s unemployment rate remained unchanged from October to November at 6.4 percent. People who work in food service and accommodation make up the largest chunk of unemployment claims at more than 45 percent. Construction and health and social assistance workers follow at 7.3 and 6.3 percent respectively. 

People have lost jobs because of restrictions on public life meant to slow the spread of the coronavirus. But there’s no sign those restrictions will loosen, since COVID-19 case counts remain high in Colorado, so there is no timeline for jobs to become more available again.

The Centers For Disease Control and Prevention moratorium on evictions is also set to end at the end of the year, leaving people worried about how to pay basic bills and where else to go for help.

People can check the state’s website for job openings and their county workforce centers for workshops and other assistance. Haavind said the department has also pointed people to housing and other local programs for additional support.

“Certainly this is our first pandemic too, and we've been attempting to adjust processes,” Haavind said. “We feel for those claimants who are frustrated now, especially with benefits ending.

“These are federal programs. The state has no ability, no funding and no authority to extend these programs. And certainly when, and if they are extended, we will work as quickly as we can to implement the requirements to quickly get benefits to people who need them.”

CPR's Andrew Kenney contributed to this reporting.