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231,610 unemployment claims filed in Colorado over the last 4 weeks

The state unemployment office is working to roll out how it will begin offering benefits to gig workers and independent contractors.

DENVER — An additional 104,217 unemployment claims filed last week has brought the total number of Colorado unemployment claims over the past four weeks to 231,610.

According to the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment (CDLE), that number is greater than the total number of unemployment claims filed per year between 2011 and 2019, as the state made its way out of the Great Recession.

And during a media call on Thursday morning, members of the CDLE acknowledged it will likely only grow in the coming weeks as it hones its framework to allow gig workers and independent contractors to receive unemployment benefits. This is part of the federal CARES Act aimed at addressing some of the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“Those benefits are federally-funded, entirely federally-funded,” said Jeff Fitzgerald, the director of Colorado’s unemployment division.

Information about how gig workers and independent contractors can apply for unemployment benefits is expected to be released in the coming days, said Cher Haavind, the executive director and chief communications officer for CDLE.

>>> Watch the video above to learn how Colorado's unemployment system has changed in wake of the novel coronavirus pandemic. 

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She said Colorado’s unemployment office is also “very close” to announcing when it will be able to pay out the additional $600-per week-benefits people are eligible for under the CARES Act.

The additional $600 per week can be back-dated to March 29, and the claims from people who are self-employed or gig workers can be back-dated to February 2, or later depending on the date of impact.

Due to the high volume of calls Colorado’s unemployment office is getting per week, Haavind said it is working to outsource its call center. It typically was handling 2,000 claims per week and now it’s handling 60,000.

“We are nearing the final stages of the work with a vendor, and that vendor will be able to help us more effectively take pressure off our team,” she said.

During the call, Haavind said there has been a backlog of people who’ve applied for unemployment waiting for PINs, but that has been reduced, and people should expect their PIN 3-4 days before they are scheduled to request a payment. 

Fitzgerald said the office is also incorporating new technology to handle the volume of claims. This comes two days after The Verge released a report that revealed Colorado’s unemployment system uses an antiquated coding language call COBOL.

“We’re still in a middle space between old and new technologies,” Fitzgerald said Thursday. “We still have our base system that processes regular unemployment benefits. We’re working to update that system.

“We’re going to be leveraging a new technology platform which is … not COBOL-based.”

The Colorado unemployment office is grappling with how to process more claims than it’s ever seen. During Thursday’s call, Ryan Gedney, the senior economist at the CDLE, said the state had 166,357 continued claims for the week of April 4.

“This is the most-ever Colorado continued claims recorded in a single week,” he said.

The second most was the 78,978 that occurred the week of January 30, 2010. Gedney said if the state runs out of money to pay the claims, it can take loans from the federal government or use private bonds.

The state saw a quick and steep incline in the number of people filing. 

On March 9, 2020, the state saw 400 unemployment claims. By March 16, it jumped to 4,000. By the 26th, there were more than 25,000 claims. 

Handling an influx of claims is something the state has been working on for years, dating back to the 2008 recession when the state also saw a spike in claims. After that, it continued working on ways to make the process smoother and was close to a system overhaul when the pandemic hit. 

The volume of calls now overshadows the number of calls after the recession. The peak number of claims filed back then was 7,700, in one week of January 2009. The state's daily average now surpasses that. To help with the call volume, the state changed the protocol and has asked people to start filing claims on certain days depending on their last name. 

RELATED: Filing for unemployment? Your last name determines when you can apply

Colorado paid out $62 million in unemployment benefits the week of April 11. It paid $29.8 million the week before. Both of these numbers greatly exceed the $8.7 million average paid out per week earlier in 2020, and the $19 million in benefits paid out during the 2009-10 Great Recession.

Like last week, the top five industries with the highest numbers of employment claims were:

  • Accommodation and food services with 21,124 claims approved so far
  • Healthcare and social service with 9,717 claims approved so far
  • Retail trade with 7,400 claims paid so far
  • Other services with 5,914 claims paid so far
  • Arts, entertainment and recreation with 4,080 claims paid so far

Gedney said the oil and gas industry, as well as manufacturing, has seen increased claims recently

Adams, Arapahoe, Denver, El Paso and Jefferson counties have accounted for more than half of the state’s unemployment claims, but when adjusted for population, Summit County and other mountain communities have experienced more unemployment.

Since COVID-19 was first confirmed in Colorado in early March, non-essential businesses have been forced to close and thousands of workers have been either furloughed or laid off. 

This includes the state's ski resorts, as well as bars and restaurants for in-person service. 

The moves came after public health orders were issued in an effort to slow the spread of the virus.

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