Unemployed Coloradans watching Congress as March 13 expiration of benefits approaches

Just as Colorado’s labor department distributes millions of dollars in federal unemployment benefits, the programs that provided that money to out-of-work Coloradans are set to expire and send thousands of people back into economic uncertainty just as they catch up on bills.

Already, more than 135,000 Coloradans have endured a two-month gap in payments after Congress delayed approval of a second round of pandemic-related stimulus money and after the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment struggled to implement a new computer system.

Now those same people are eyeing March 13. That’s when the latest federal pandemic stimulus package expires.

The U.S. House of Representatives is expected to vote on President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion stimulus plan Friday or Saturday. It’s expected to be approved and then would head to the Senate next week. Even if approved, the relief may not come fast enough to avoid another weeks-long gap in benefits for tens of thousands of Colorado workers, who have learned the hard way that the longer it takes for Congress to act, the more they suffer.

Brittany Dreiling, an events planner in Colorado Springs, went two months without benefits between the first and second federal pandemic stimulus packages. Over the weekend, Dreiling received eight weeks of payments, but it’s almost gone as she and her husband — who also is unemployed — scramble to catch up on bills.

“My bills are dramatically more than they were six months ago because I have late fees,” she said. “Where am I going to be if we have this delay? Back in the same boat.”

When the pandemic struck in mid-March, Congress moved fast to pass the CARES Act, a $2 trillion economic stimulus package that included benefits for people experiencing long-term unemployment, for those who had to leave jobs because they could not risk illness and for those who held gig jobs such as Uber drivers or food delivery couriers.

But political bickering led Congress to wait until the last minute to pass a second stimulus package in late December and then the former president didn’t sign the bill until the prior act had expired. The second stimulus package, known as the Continued Assistance Act, renewed those benefits through March 13.

But it took the U.S. Department of Labor a couple of weeks to determine how states should administer benefits, and then the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment had to reprogram its computer system to follow the federal guidelines, which included creating an identity verification step to prevent fraud. All of this came just as the state rolled out a new unemployment benefits computer system.

That left an estimated half million Coloradans waiting with no income.

On Feb. 1, Colorado finally opened access to extended federal benefits to 230,000 people and on Saturday another estimated 287,000 people were informed they could file for claims. All of them were receiving Pandemic Unemployment Assistance — a benefit for gig workers and independent contractors who don’t pay into state unemployment systems — or Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation, which is for those who run out of state benefits or lose jobs because they cannot risk illness.

Both of those programs would expire unless Congress renews them in the latest stimulus bill.

On top of the political delays, Colorado’s launch of a new computer system has been flawed. Six weeks in, and there still are programming issues that cause delays in payments.

Beverly Compton, a 68-year-old hospital worker in Pagosa Springs, described it as “one mess after another.” She took a voluntary layoff in April because she is at high-risk for COVID-19 and has been on the PEUC program since then.

She is eligible for 11 weeks of benefits through the Continued Assistance Act and when the second set of PEUC claimants was approved to file over the weekend, she immediately logged on. She received back payment for two weeks on Monday morning and a back payment for a third week on Monday afternoon. The she got a fourth week of pay added to her bank account on Tuesday. She’s still waiting on the additional three weeks of back pay, plus what she is entitled to claim through March 11.

But she’s frustrated over a computer glitch that has caused the back payments to trickle in rather than arrive in a lump sum as promised.

“That is failure. You can’t keep telling the people you’re going to fix something and then you don’t,” Compton said. “People spend all night looking at their bank accounts to see if the money is there. It’s sad and it’s wrong.”

Already, officials at Colorado’s labor department are trying to warn people that another gap in benefits is looming.

If the third stimulus package extends the number of weeks that people can receive money without changing the rules, that shortens the gap to reprogram the system, Phil Spesshardt, acting director of the unemployment division, said Tuesday during a call with the media.

If the latest bill simply adds money to the federal programs, Colorado could update its computer system to administer them within one to two weeks, Spesshardt said. If there are new rules, it would take a month.

“The takeaway here is the quicker Congress acts, the better,” Spesshardt said. “The more they keep it simple, the better. That’s not just for us, that’s for every state that has to program these additional extensions into their systems. The more they keep it the same, the more it’s easier to add and the more you avoid those gap weeks.”

But Dreiling, who frequently advises people about their benefits in a Facebook group, worries that so many people are still trying to get caught up that they are not looking ahead. She keeps urging people to call their U.S. representatives and senators to push them to act fast.

“Its looking less and less promising,” she said. “With what I’m seeing, Congress has no intention to do anything until the last minute. I’m not sure if people realize they’re going to end up back in the same position.”

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