More than 358,000 Coloradans have filed for unemployment over the past six weeks, in an unprecedented wave that reflects the nationwide job-loss and economic devastation of COVID-19.
For comparison, in all of 2019, a little over 102,000 Coloradans filed for unemployment.
Colorado’s unemployment system wasn’t designed to handle ten thousand applications a day, forcing the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment (CDLE) to upgrade its systems and hire dozens of new workers.
Even with the upgrades, application and payment issues continue to frustrate applicants.
Independent contractors, gig-workers and the self-employed — ineligible for benefits before the pandemic — now qualify under provisions from the first coronavirus stimulus bill. These workers must use a separate application process. And the two separate systems have proven to be confusing.
CDLE has created a separate call center for pandemic-related questions and has held four virtual town halls so far — two in English and two in Spanish — to answer questions on unemployment.
We’ve compiled some of the questions from the town hall in English on May 4 and added a few additional questions and answers that may help unemployed Coloradans negotiate the bureaucratic maze.
How do I know if I qualify for unemployment?
In normal times, if you were laid-off or lost a certain number of hours through no fault of your own, you could qualify for up to 26 weeks of unemployment benefits. During COVID-19, if you lost work or hours due to the pandemic, you are eligible for that 26, plus another 13 — a total of 39 weeks of unemployment. Coloradans who have been forced to stay home to care for children or a vulnerable family member also qualify. You can file for unemployment here.
In addition, if you are self-employed, an independent contractor or a gig-worker who has lost income because of the pandemic, you qualify for benefits under Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA), which has a separate system. You should use this link.
What documents do I need to have to file for unemployment?
You should have your 2018 and 2019 tax forms. CDLE might ask for additional identifying documents such as a birth certificate or driver’s license. You will need to report any earnings you still receive to calculate your benefits.
As long as you are legally permitted to work in the U.S. — citizens, legal permanent residents and visa holders — you can receive benefits.
How can I ensure my claim is processed quickly?
CDLE asks that you submit to an Experian check to verify identity. The check won’t affect your credit. Saying no to the identity check will delay your claim, state officials say. You should also provide CDLE with an email and respond to emails that require a response. Make sure to check your spam folder for CDLE emails.
How do I know if my application is complete?
You will receive a confirmation code at the end of your application. The next day you will be able to log in to CDLE’s website and see that your claim is active.
When and how can I get my benefits after I’m approved?
For regular unemployment you should receive a unique PIN — a personal number used to request payments — within three to four business days after your application is approved. If you don’t receive a PIN in that time, you should contact CDLE. You can use that PIN to request benefit payments twice a month through CDLE’s website or by telephone. Once you have requested a payment, you should receive it within two to three business days, according to officials.
Unlike regular unemployment, PUA claimants will not get a PIN and must request payments weekly through the PUA website here. The department will let you know when you can request payments and you can set up direct deposit with your bank or receive payments on a debit card issued by CDLE.
For both categories of unemployment, recipients need to report any income received since the previous payment and certify that availability to work.
More information and the steps to request a payment can be found here.
How much can I expect to receive?
CDLE calculates your income for the past 18 months and grants between 50-60% of your normal earnings in benefits. Before the pandemic, the maximum weekly benefit was $618. Now, the first federal stimulus bill now adds an additional $600 a week until July 31. So, the maximum benefit now is $1,218 a week before taxes.
The lowest threshold is $25 a week, but for PUA benefits for independent contractors, federal law requires weekly payments of at least $223.
Here is a benefit estimator that allows you to plug in your earnings from the past 18 months and calculates your benefits before the extra $600 a week is added on.
How do I file if I’m a gig-worker or independent contractor who also has a regular job?
If you earned more than $2,500 from a regular payroll job in the past 18 months, you must file for regular unemployment before you can file for PUA benefits. If you are approved for regular unemployment, you must then use up those benefits before you can file as an independent contractor.
Do I need to request the extra $600 per week in federal funds?
No. CDLE will add the federal money to your regular benefit payments automatically and payments can be backdated to March 29. If you want those backdated payments, you will need to call CDLE to request them.
What should I do if I’ve already exhausted my unemployment benefits?
If you used up your 26 weeks of benefits (see answer to the first question) before the coronavirus stimulus bill was signed into law on March 27, you can now apply for an additional 13 weeks of benefits through the PUA system.
My employer wants me to return to work, but I don’t feel safe. Can I still receive unemployment?
It depends. You could still receive unemployment benefits and don’t need to immediately return to work, especially if you are a member of a vulnerable group to COVID-19 like the immuno-compromised or elderly. You will need to inform CDLE that you were requested to return to work when you next request benefits. CDLE will investigate the conditions of your job on a case-by-case basis to ensure your employer is following the guidelines of Gov. Jared Polis’s safer-at-home order or your county’s orders, which may be stricter than the statewide guidelines.
The department will consider whether your employer has protocols in place for social distancing, for wearing masks and for generally operating safely.
CDLE will also take into account whether you live with a vulnerable person. For vulnerable Coloradans or members of their households, there may be no condition under which you can safely return to work.
After investigation, CDLE will let you know if you can still collect benefits.
Editor’s note: Additional clarification was added to this story on the process for those feeling unsafe to return to work.