Navigating The Confusing World Of Colorado's Unemployment Benefits
As the spike in COVID-19 cases continues and businesses close, people are finding themselves out of work again. To survive, many are turning to the state's unemployment system for support. It’s a complex, messy system, not built for these unprecedented times and the unprecedented surge in demand.
Tamara Chuang of the Colorado Sun tries to help readers navigate these hurdles each week through her “What's Working” column. She spoke with KUNC’s Colorado Edition about what's going on with the State Extended Benefits program.
These interview highlights have been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Erin O’Toole: A recent column mostly focused on the end of State Extended Benefits. How do these differ from regular unemployment?
Tamara Chuang: Everyone who's unemployed is eligible for up to 26 weeks of unemployment benefits. So, State Extended Benefits (SEB) actually kicks in any time Colorado's unemployment rate goes above 5.0%. So, that kicked in after the pandemic began. It extends regular unemployment benefits an extra 13 weeks.
Apparently, the federal government turned off the tap on those benefits because, as far as it knew, the state's unemployment level had dropped below that 5% threshold. But you reported that people were missed in that calculation, and the state's true unemployment rate was closer to 8%. How did that happen?
The strange thing about the pandemic is there's all these different types of unemployment now. So, you have the folks on regular unemployment; these are the people who work for a company whose employer pays for unemployment insurance. In any given year, like last year, or the prior year, if you were unemployed you would qualify for about 26 weeks. And this comes out of a state trust fund.
But because of the pandemic and the CARES Act, the federal government decided they're paying the bill for these extended benefits. And there's two sets of extended benefits. Plus, there's a whole other group that has never, ever received unemployment benefits, and those are the gig workers and self-employed people. So, you've got these folks on regular unemployment and then you've got all these extra people on extended benefits or the gig workers. The latter two groups were not counted in this calculation — that would have bumped up the rate to 8%.
We had the chance to speak to a Sterling resident who was expecting to get that SEB money after her regular benefits come to an end. How many other people are in a similar situation statewide?
The count of people on regular unemployment is somewhere between maybe 80,000 or 90,000. But then that uncounted portion is another 100,000; it's probably around 130,000 now. So all the people on extended benefits, or these gig workers, all those benefits end Dec. 26 because that's how long the CARES Act is funding these payments.
Some people are asking why the state can't just bring it back. Is this a possibility?
Interestingly, there is a second trigger that could have kept the program going. Remember, we talked about that 5.0% rate. If it had counted everybody, it would have been over 8%, so we would never have fallen off. But there is a second trigger the state could have used, and that is to base that calculation on the actual unemployment rate. So it would count a lot of these people. At least it would count all the people on extended benefits. It's called the Total Unemployment Rate (TUR), and it would take the average of the last three months of the unemployment rate, which for Colorado is 6.5%. So as long as we were at 6.5% or higher, we would still be able to be eligible for those extended benefits.
I noticed you used the term "could have." Is this not going to happen?
Well, the problem is we didn't have this in place when we got kicked off this extended benefits system. And the federal policy is after you're kicked off, you actually have to wait for 13 weeks before you can rejoin. So even if your unemployment rate goes up again, you can't join for 13 weeks. But last week, the state legislature in their emergency session adopted this new trigger. The idea is, now we've got these two triggers — can we rejoin this extended program and pay those benefits retroactively? Currently we're still waiting to hear from the U.S. Department of Labor on whether this is possible.
What can people who expected to have access to that money do in the meantime?
There is one decent option here, and that is actually to apply for the gig worker benefit. So, I know these are two completely separate programs; and if you are qualified for regular unemployment, you weren't supposed to apply for this other one, which is called Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, or I just call it PUA. Since March, the unemployment office has been telling people it's one or the other, don't apply for both or it'll be considered fraud. So now they're changing that because people who have used up all their benefits can actually qualify for PUA. They will have to reapply. And the reason why they can qualify for this is because PUA, which is for gig workers and is paid out of federal money, is allowed for up to 39 weeks. So, if you haven't used up 39 weeks of regular unemployment, you may be able to be eligible for the last four weeks of the year on PUA.
This conversation is part of KUNC’s Colorado Edition for Dec. 8. You can find the full episode here.