Colorado jobless won't get extension pay till Aug.
By Allison Sherry
The Denver Post
Out-of-work Coloradans eligible for a 20-week extension in unemployment benefits will have to wait until the end of August to get paid, even though a new law providing those benefits took effect July 1, state officials said Tuesday.
By August, between 5,000 and 6,000 people will be due money, said Steve Fowler, director of unemployment insurance at the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment.
Those who qualify for the extension will get payments retroactive to July 1.
The new law, Senate Bill 247, signed by Gov. Bill Ritter in June, would, among other things, grant another 20 weeks of unemployment benefits to Coloradans looking for work.
Fowler said the department has been working "diligently" on figuring out who qualifies for the benefits extension since May, when the bill passed, but the department's limited resources have slowed the process.
"We're empathetic," Fowler said. "The thing that's impressed me the most is the way the staff is concerned with getting payments out. We understand the difficulty this places individuals in. This is the fastest we can respond."
This is the latest wrinkle at the state Department of Labor and Employment, which has been besieged with people seeking unemployment help since large numbers of Coloradans started getting laid off last fall.
Last month, the department's computer system for taking claims crashed repeatedly, forcing thousands of people seeking unemployment benefits online to call the offices instead. Phone lines were jammed for days.
About 160,000 people in Colorado are collecting unemployment benefits. The state's unemployment rate in May was 7.6 percent.
The new law released $127 million in federal stimulus dollars to backfill the state's unemployment benefits trust fund.
In addition to 20 more weeks of unemployment help, the law allows people to collect benefits based on the most recent quarter they worked, rather than the first four of the past five quarters, the previous standard. About 1,800 more people a year will be eligible for benefits using this criteria, according to the Bell Policy Center.
Rich Jones, director of policy and research at Bell, said he understands how difficult it is for the state to determine who qualifies for the additional money, but the 20-week extension money should be coursing through the economy right now.
"People really need the money," he said. "One of the major reasons this is part of the stimulus package is so it gets out there and is spent in the economy."
State Rep. Sal Pace, who co-sponsored the new law, was more blunt.
"It's really problematic for people to wait for a couple of months," said Pace, of Pueblo. "The intention of the bill was that the money would be available July 1. . . . We need to figure out how to make that happen immediately."
In order to qualify for the additional 20 weeks, unemployed Coloradans must have already exhausted 59 weeks of unemployment benefits.
Originally, Colorado provided 26 weeks of unemployment. Late last year, when millions of Americans began losing jobs, Congress authorized an additional 20 weeks of benefits for people who had run through that money and were still looking for jobs.
Then, in February, Colorado's average unemployment rate hit 6 percent, which released more federal money to extend unemployment insurance for another 13 weeks.
Kathy White, project director at the Colorado Fiscal Policy Institute, urged people to take heart that the money is there.
"While they're working out the details, the help is here," she said. "It's tough, but at least this state did what was needed to make sure our unemployed folks get help available."
Allison Sherry: 303-954-1377 or email@example.com