For Coloradans getting by on federal unemployment benefits, the wait for them to restart is agonizing
It’s been a month since Yvette Quintana received an unemployment check.
She doesn’t know when the next will come.
Quintana sold a bed from the guest room in her mobile home in Adams County and few household odds and ends to “keep my head above water.” She’s worried about where she’ll find the money for February’s rent.
“It’s not only losing your place. It’s losing your car. If you have animals, what do you do?” Quintana said. “I never thought in my wildest dreams that anything like this would happen in America.”
Quintana is one of more than 323,000 people in Colorado who received at least one payment in 2020 under the federal Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program, which for the first time provided benefits to contractors and gig workers. When the program expired on Dec. 26, 19,055 people that week had filed initial claims in Colorado for the benefits.
While Congress approved an extension for PUA, the money has not started flowing again for the thousands of Colorado workers who lost jobs when the pandemic struck and are still searching for work. The wait also includes people depending on federal Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation, which provides another 11 weeks of benefits for those who have exhausted their regular state-allotted claims.
The gap in benefits came after the U.S. Senate waited until the 11th hour to agree to a new stimulus package, and the president didn’t help matters when he didn’t sign the new bill into law until Dec. 28. Those failures did not allow federal and state government officials enough time to reset the program without a gap.
Nerves are fraying for those who are now entering their fourth week without a paycheck, and Colorado Department of Labor and Employment officials acknowledged it Thursday during a call with reporters. They begged for patience and assured people they are working as fast as they can to reprogram the state’s computer system to get the money flowing.
“I know there are a lot of people out there worried about when are they going to receive their payments,” said Phil Spesshardt, a manager in the labor department’s Division of Unemployment Insurance. “We have many of those individuals that it is three weeks now where many of them have not received payments, and we’re telling them we have to program down the road and it will be a little bit more they’re going to have to wait.”
New law, new guidance
On Jan. 8, the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment received guidance from the U.S. Department of Labor on the rules administering the unemployment program. The department began programming its unemployment claims system to dole out the money to qualified recipients, Spesshardt said.
But that comes as the labor department is introducing a completely new claims system and is experiencing thousands of calls from people trying to file for regular state benefits.
One of the issues with starting the latest version of the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program is the new law requires states to add an identification verification step for claimants, said Cher Haavind, the department spokeswoman. That’s in place to reduce fraud, which has cost Colorado at least $10 million in fraudulent claims since the pandemic began, she said.
“Every time Congress extends a program — as long as I have worked for the Unemployment Insurance Division — they make changes to it,” Spesshardt said. “So it’s not just as simple as throwing money back on some claims. There are other rules that end up applying that end up having to be programmed in.”
For now, there is no set date for when those benefits kick in, Haavind and Spesshardt said. Both said the programs likely will be rolled out in phases, with an emphasis on what will benefit the most people.
Meanwhile, Quintana and thousands of other out-of-work Coloradans chat on Facebook forums about their benefits and how to navigate the complicated system. They also help out each other when someone is in crisis, which is what happened last week when a man posted that he was contemplating suicide because he wasn’t able to get money through the unemployment system and life had become too hard.
The group’s participants were able to get police to his home and connect him with other resources, said Carrie Joy Swank, one of the moderators.
“It was a very emotional day,” she said.
When Colorado made plans to upgrade its claims system, it sent notice to thousands of unemployment recipients with instructions on how the upgrade would roll out. At least six notices explained that anyone receiving PUA or PEUC would not be eligible to apply for new benefits right away. But a lot of people missed those notices or didn’t understand what they were saying and tried to log on anyway, leading to more frustration and confusion when their claims were denied.
“Now I’m freaking out”
Amanda Brown, 26, was one of them.
Brown, an unemployed home health aid in Denver, is caught up in a confusing tangle of bureaucracy in which she has received multiple forms of unemployment assistance since the pandemic started in March.
At first she signed up for the assistance granted to gig and contractor workers, but then was switched to regular unemployment. She exhausted those benefits after being unemployed for 26 weeks. Then, when state employment benefits ran out in November, she switched to Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, which was allowed for those who have been unable to return to work because of the pandemic.
But when the CARES Act expired last month, that money stopped. So did the Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation money that her fiancé, who was laid off from the Colorado Convention Center, had been receiving.
Now, the couple, who are parents to 1- and 2-year-old boys, have no income.
Brown logged into the new unemployment claims system but no longer sees a balance for PUA and doesn’t understand what happened.
“Now I’m freaking out and I just don’t know,” she said. “You call the line and after an hour of waiting you talk to someone who doesn’t know.”
According to labor department instructions, she will have to wait until the system is reprogrammed.
“PUA and PEUC claimants can verify they’re able to log in, but there is not really anything for them to do within the MyUI+ system until we finish implementing the PUA and PEUC extensions in MyUI+,” Haavind said in an email to The Denver Post.
Until then, the family will live off their remaining savings and make cuts where they can. Already, they’re using food banks and are applying for rental assistance through the Salvation Army. They’ve started buying a cheaper brand of diapers, but those caused rashes, she said.
“We’re having to choose which bills to pay and which bills not to pay,” Brown said. “Especially when you have kids, it’s scary.”
“I don’t have any place to go”
Quintana, a 53-year-old who operated her own accounts payable business and worked as an independent contractor, said communication from the labor department has been confusing. But she participates in Facebook groups and realizes that all she can do is wait. Meanwhile, she will keep applying for jobs.
Before the unemployment benefits for private contractors stopped, Quintana was receiving $500 a week, enough to make ends meet. She cut her home internet and downgraded cell phone service. She can’t afford veterinary care for two cats with health issues, and even has resorted to sharing her personal inhaler to help one cat with breathing problems.
“If I lose my place, I have three cats, I don’t have any place to go,” she said. “I’ve lost everything in the past. I don’t want to lose it again.”
The labor department has required her to apply for five jobs every week. She keeps records of all of the applications she fills out in a folder in her computer.
“I looked at it the other day and there’s hundreds I’ve applied at,” she said. “With so many people applying for jobs you’re probably going to get lost in all the resumes.”
As for paying the bills, Quintana is uncertain. At the start of the pandemic, she packed food boxes for others. Now she’s the one worried about rent and groceries. She hopes her landlord is understanding because she doesn’t want to be homeless.
“All I know is that we have each other and we have to help each other,” she said. “If you have one piece of bread, you share it. That’s the way it has to be now.”
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