First-time claims for unemployment insurance benefits in Colorado last week declined 25.2% from the previous week, but still accounted for the second highest total in the state's records.
Last week, 46,055 claims were filed, the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment reported Thursday. That's down from the record 61,583 claims filed in the week ended March 28, which in turn was more than triple the record set in the previous week. The department has received 127,393 initial claims for unemployment benefits during the past three weeks, more than each of the annual totals for the past three years. The numbers don't include self-employed, independent contractors or "gig" workers.
First-time claims "are still very elevated. The cumulative number for the past three weeks is more important than the weekly numbers," said Ryan Gedney, a senior economist for the department.
The largest number of workers filing claims in the week ended March 28 came from the hotel and restaurant industry at 12,411, followed by health care and social services at 2,560, the department said. Hotels and restaurants have been hit hard by mandatory closure orders for restaurants' dine-in areas, a sharp decline in travel and a stay-at-home order from Gov. Jared Polis to slow the spread of the coronavirus across the state.
In El Paso County, the weekly average number of claims jumped from 269 in the week ended March 7 to 328 in the week ended March 14 to 2,869 in the week ended March 21. Teller County rose for six in the week ended March 7 to 11 in the week ended March 14 to 145 in the week ended March 21. El Paso County's average for the week ended March 21 was the state's second-highest after 4,841 in Denver County.
The state paid nearly $30 million in unemployment benefits during the week ended April 4, more than triple the weekly average this year. Gedney said the total could easily pass $50 million later this year. The department paid an average of $19 million a week during the Great Recession and a record $102.8 million in benefits in May 2009, a monthly mark that may be eclipsed.
Department officials said they expect to finish reprogramming the state's unemployment system to accept claims from self-employed, independent contractors, or gig workers, by mid-April. The state received guidelines Sunday from the federal government on how to expand the unemployment system and began reprogramming it before President Donald Trump signed legislation expanding unemployment benefits to such workers, but officials said the work has been slowed by the system being a "hybrid" between older and newer technology.
"We are working around the clock reprogramming the system, testing it and making sure it works properly," said Jeff Fitzgerald, director of the department's Unemployment Insurance Division. Payments will be retroactive to Jan. 29 or whenever the individual lost their income, he said.
Other unemployment benefits included in the relief bill — a $600-a-week boost in benefits, beginning March 29, and an automatic 13-week extension of benefits from the 26-week maximum — will automatically be paid to anyone receiving benefits, Fitzgerald said.
Self-employed, independent contractors and gig workers weren't eligible for unemployment benefits, until the $2.2 trillion coronavirus relief legislation because they do not pay unemployment insurance premiums that are paid by employers for traditional workers, said Cher Roybal Haavind, the department's deputy director. Funding for all of the benefit expansion will come from the federal government and not from the state's unemployment insurance program, she said.
Haavind said the department expects to have sent personal identification numbers needed to get unemployment benefits to all eligible recipients either by telephone or email by Sunday evening. The department had generated the PINs manually but has switched to generating them automatically to keep up with the surging volume of unemployment insurance claims that left more than 80,000 without PINs.