Federal unemployment benefits to end Saturday for 3,000 in El Paso County

By Garrison Wells Updated: December 27, 2013 at 11:27 am • Published: December 26, 2013 | 5:30 pm 0
photo - Most of the computers may be in constant use at the Pikes Peak Workforce Center, like they were in this 2010 photo, if Emergency Unemployment Compensation isn't extended before midnight on New Years Eve.  (The Gazette/Jerilee Bennett)
Most of the computers may be in constant use at the Pikes Peak Workforce Center, like they were in this 2010 photo, if Emergency Unemployment Compensation isn't extended before midnight on New Years Eve. (The Gazette/Jerilee Bennett)

About 3,000 people in El Paso County face the specter Saturday of being both without a job and the federal unemployment checks that help them live day to day.

Welcome to the New Year.

Without congressional approval, Emergency Unemployment Compensation dies at the end of 2013.

State unemployment insurance will not be affected.

But that's no help to the 16,000 people in Colorado who are receiving federal benefits now.

Another 10,000 are about to roll off the state's 26-week unemployment insurance and would be enrolling in the federal program.

At the Pikes Peak Workforce Center, laid-off propane sales representative Dean Stephany was hoping to find a job before his benefits run out as 2014 dawns. He's been hunting for a job for 8-months.

"If the economy was up and thriving, like it was 10 years ago, 26 weeks would be ample time," he said. "Now you have people with master's degrees looking for menial jobs."

Still, it's Congress. There's always hope.

Last year the federal benefits were extended at about midnight on New Year's Eve after the usual political posturing.

"We've been here before," said Cher Haavind, spokeswoman for the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment.

"We started an outreach effort several weeks ago to those impacted individuals, the 26,000, those currently on federal benefits and to those with five weeks or less remaining on state benefits to notify them of the potential expiration and direct them to human services and support organizations," she said.

In El Paso County, as of November, there were 3,072 residents on federal benefits. There were another 1,384 on state benefits who were about to become eligible for the federal program.

In Teller County, there were 103 residents on federal benefits and in Douglas County, there were 800.

In all, 51,795 were on both federal and state benefits statewide, Haavind said..

At the Workforce Center, staff are preparing customers for the possibility that this year there will not be an extension, said Michelle Graham, community initiatives director.

"We really are not expecting it to be extended, but we could be wrong, like we were last year," she said. "Year to year, it's always a different feel. Last year it was done right at midnight at the very last moment on New Year's Eve. I can't forecast one way or the other, but our behavior here is we make the assumption that it won't be extended so people can mentally prepare for that possibility."

If Congress does not extend the benefits, it will be toughest on the long-term unemployed, Graham said. "The longer somebody is out of work, there is an atrophy of skill and work readiness that happens," she said. "The longer you are unemployed, the more challenging it can be to get back to work again."

Some job-seekers at the workforce center, though, say losing their benefits is better than piling on federal debt.

"I'd like to see it continue, but we can't keep spending what we don't have," said Steve Haynes, who said he'd take just about any job he could find.

There were 60,858 El Paso and Teller County residents registered from October 2012 through this October with Connecting Colorado (connectincolorado.com,) a statewide jobs web site.

Of that number, 10,892 were already employed.

During that same time, there were 136,723 jobs posted on the web site in El Paso and Teller Counties.

"The jobs are definitely there," Graham said. "In the last few months, the number of job postings have increased significantly. These run the gamut from entry level to engineering positions, so there is hope."

Indeed, at a September job fair hosted by the Pikes Peak Workforce Center, 92 companies were shopping for employees to fill 2,900 jobs, she said.

There were 1,975 job seekers, she said.

"It's a positive highlight that there are definitely jobs to be had, if you're going to take the time to upgrade your skills, polish up," Graham said.

The two areas where unemployed can make the most gains in training -- in customer service and computer skills, both of which can be studied for free at the Workforce Center.

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