Huck Auen didn’t have much left. The 51-year-old former U.S. Marine had pawned his wedding ring while he and his family waited for unemployment benefits, a last act of desperation as his bank account dwindled.
“The wedding ring was the last thing I brought in, not the first,” said Auen, who was laid off from his job at an industrial laundromat last April. His unemployment benefits expired in August, when an apparent software glitch stopped him from enrolling in extended benefits.
Unable to find a new job and slowed by health issues, Auen’s family cut to “half rations” and “quarter rations,” he explained, subsisting on $10 grocery runs and selling scrap metal. This weekend, the wait finally ended: about $2,200 of long-delayed benefits arrived in Auen’s bank account.
“I brought my checking account positive. It was in the negative there for a bit,” Auen said. “I put gas in the car. We’ve got a grocery run that I’ll do, and then utilities, I want to give them a confidence payment.”
Auen is one of perhaps tens of thousands of Coloradans who finally saw their benefits unfrozen last weekend after an extended wait. His case was on the extreme end, but most had gone without payments for nearly three months or longer.
Nearly 300,000 Coloradans may have lost benefits at the end of December, when the previous federal benefits expired. Congress approved an extension at the last minute, but the rollout of those new benefits has been delayed as the state Department of Labor and Employment has rushed to complete a software upgrade and implement the new extended benefits.
Most of those people were likely able to resume their benefits three weeks ago in “Phase 1,” but Auen and others had to wait for “Phase 2” this last weekend.
Where Colorado unemployment benefits stand:
- The extended benefits add 11 weeks or more in unemployment benefits to the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance and Pandemic Extended Unemployment Compensation programs, plus a $300 weekly boost for everyone collecting unemployment benefits. PUA is the program for self-employed and gig workers, while PEUC serves people whose regular benefits have expired.
- People on the PUA program have to take an extra step before accessing the extended weeks. They must apply for “Regular UI” and get rejected before they can get back on PUA.
- The extended benefits and the $300 boost are available for weeks from Dec. 27 and March 14, although some people will be eligible for a few weeks longer.
Colorado was among the later states to start paying the extended benefits, including the $300-a-week unemployment boost, said Andrew Stettner, a senior fellow specializing in unemployment at the think tank The Century Foundation. But it has been common for states to divide the rollout into phases, he said.
In Colorado and other states, the people who have had to wait the longest were those who had already run out of benefits when the programs expired in late December. People with an unpaid balance of potential benefits as of Dec. 27 were able to collect that balance more quickly.
As of Monday, the state labor department had counted about 130,000 new unemployment claims and paid out more than $206 million since Feb. 20. But it’s not yet possible to say how many of those people had specifically been waiting for Phase 2; some of those claims also will be rejected as fraudulent.
Despair and confusion had mounted in recent weeks as people waited for their benefits to resume, with countless people emailing reporters and public officials or turning to social media for answers.
Recent improvements to Colorado's unemployment filing system
In the last few days, the problems have seemed to ease somewhat, said Erin Joy Swank, who helps to manage a Facebook group for people with unemployment issues.
“If it’s your personal glitch, it’s still a gigantic, enormous glitch, but I do feel like there are less people with glitches,” she said. Labor department officials have said that they will be able to address more glitches and problems now that Phase 2 is deployed.
But new frustrations are still cropping up. The state’s new anti-fraud defenses are flagging many accounts for potential fraudulent activity. Those holds can generally only be cleared if people verify their identity with the private software platform ID.me. Swank said that some members of her group have reported long waits for service, though others have succeeded.
Have you tried to use ID.me to verify your identity in Colorado? Email the reporter.
Meanwhile, Huck Auen says he's grateful but worried. With the money flowing again, his checking account is back in the black. He was planning to make a grocery run, put gas in the car and pay down some of his backlogged utility bills. After that, he'll go get his wedding ring back.
"Anything we get is a blessing. I'm able to feed the family and we’re able to look forward to things heading in a better direction," he said. Still, he said, "there’s a little apprehension that things could change rapidly and catastrophically fail again."
Also looming: Congress is expected to once again extend unemployment benefits; the current extension expires in mid-March. If it’s another last-minute deal, states could once again be scrambling and recipients could face another gap.