DENVER – Some people who have waited nearly two months for Phase 2 of the federal extended unemployment benefits rollout to begin were able to reopen their claims Saturday, and start certifying payments on Sunday, the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment said Thursday.
Cher Haavind, the deputy executive director of the CDLE, said the department emailed about 289,000 Coloradans this week who will potentially be eligible under Phase 2 with directions on what to do Thursday and Friday to prepare to start certifying their claims on Saturday, Feb. 20.
Phase 2 of the rollout of the Continued Assistance Act will get unemployment benefits out to several groups — people who exhausted their Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) or Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation (PEUC) benefits before Dec. 26; people who were receiving PUA or PEUC benefits in Phase 1 who already exhausted those benefits; regular state unemployment claimants who exhausted their benefits since Dec. 26 who will now be eligible for PEUC; and people who are newly eligible to file for PUA or PEUC after exhausting their regular state benefits after Dec. 26, the department said.
CDLE officials said the 289,000 people whom they emailed this week was a rough estimate of the true scope of the number of people who may be eligible under the Phase 2 rollout, but said the exact number was hard to predict because of the different phases some people fall under – including some who were both in Phase 1 and Phase 2. Officials originally estimated the Phase 2 rollout would start on Feb. 22.
From the end of January through Feb. 13, the state had paid out a combined $350 million in benefits, said CDLE Senior Economist Ryan Gedney. The state has distributed $7.3 billion in state and federal benefits since last March.
How to apply and certify
The officials said that the Phase 2 group should be able to start certifying their claims on Saturday. CDLE Chief of Staff Daniel Chase said that as of Thursday, it is likely that people who certify claims on Saturday will have to wait until Sunday before they can go back in to MyUI+ and certify their payments, though the department hopes to have a fix in place so both can be done on Saturday.
But in order to make that happen on Saturday, the department will make the MyUI+ system go dark starting at 5:30 p.m. Friday until 3 a.m. Saturday, during which time people will not be able to access their accounts.
As was the case with Phase 1, people certifying PUA claims will have to first log in to their account, request payment for any available weeks within their account, and then apply for standard unemployment and confirm they are not eligible for those. Once the standard claim is denied, those people should be able to reopen a PUA claim the next day. People who do not see an option to “Apply for Standard UI Benefits” can skip the step, according to the email that went out to potential Phase 2 claimants.
New PUA filers will have to go through the ID.Me check to verify their identity – an extra step that officials say will help combat fraud from the outset.
With the Phase 2 rollout, those groups will also now start receiving the $300 a week Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation (FPUC) benefit as well if they are receiving at least $1 a week in benefits through standard UI, PUA or PEUC.
The Continued Assistance Act, which was passed by Congress and signed by then-President Trump after the CARES Act expired on Dec. 26, will allow for up to 11 weeks of those extended federal benefits for people who are eligible through March 14.
The benefits will also be backdated for people who are eligible back to Dec. 27.
There is still one group who will not see benefits just yet – those who had mixed wages between self-employed income and W-2 income – who will be eligible for the Mixed Earners Unemployment Compensation program, though that program is not ready yet for rollout. Phil Spesshardt, the CDLE’s acting UI division director, said several states along with Colorado were having difficulty in programming and rolling out that program.
Still, the Phase 2 rollout will prove beneficial for the thousands of Coloradans who have been waiting for nearly 2 months now to receive money to pay their bills and put food on the table – many of whom started receiving unemployment in late March or early April who exhausted their benefits well before the end of December.
Between March 9 and March 23 of 2020, initial unemployment claims jumped by 6000% as the state moved quickly to a stay-at-home order, which shut down most businesses and led to the first wave of about 300,000 unemployment filings before the CARES Act was passed and those benefits kicked in in late April.
Suzanne Fraser is among those people. The bartender of more than 30 years first filed for unemployment last March when the bar at which she was working temporarily closed.
“The last payment that I got was a $300 check from unemployment. That was Dec. 27,” she said.
She exhausted all of her federal benefits before the CARES Act expired and has been unable to file a claim while she waits for the Phase 2 rollout.
Jolene Rheault’s federal benefits expired in December, and she too has been waiting for the Phase 2 rollout.
“It’s been really traumatic for a lot of people. A lot of people, they don’t know how to cope with it. They don’t know what to do,” she said.
The two are not alone.
Dozens of people have called and emailed Denver7 over the past two months expressing frustrations at how long it has taken to roll out the new program after the department upgraded their system to MyUI+.
“There were up to 12 different pathways someone could get to Dec. 26 and still be on federal benefits,” CDLE Executive Director Joe Barela said in an interview Wednesday. “We have to account for those pathways before we make someone eligible for the new extensions.”
Fraser and others say the explanation has been tough to stomach as their bills pile up while they await loosened restrictions so they can get back to work.
“We all really need help now,” Fraser said. “I have a whole life that I built around [bartending] and I could be on the verge of losing it all at any moment. And it’s terrifying because I put everything into that industry to be able to have this life and I could lose it all — all of it.”
Barela said getting money in people’s accounts was now their top priority.
“Those that are eligible, we want to get money into their pockets as quick as possible so they can pay their bills and they don’t have to face undue hardship, and so someone who is waiting on their benefits in Phase 2, when I say these things, I don’t want it to be salt in the wound because they are not getting paid,” Barela said. “Our No. 1 priority now is to make sure that those that are eligible have a system that works and they can get through it and be determined eligible, and we get that payment in their hands as quickly as possible.”
Another likely gap coming
But the unfortunate next facet of the federal extended benefits programs the department says it now faces is that the benefits will expire on March 14.
Even if Congress passes another stimulus package, a process which has been in the works for weeks, which contains more unemployment extensions, the CDLE will again have to wait until the measure is signed by President Joe Biden, then wait for updated guidance from the U.S. Department of Labor on how to reprogram MyUI+ for whatever intricacies a new measure would contain – just as the department had to do in January – before extensions can again be rolled out.
Barela said in an interview Wednesday that the guidance from the USDOL regarding the Continued Assistance Act was contained in six different instruction manuals that had to be programmed in, which also led to more confusion on certain questions the USDOL mandated the state use once Phase 1 came online.
Spesshardt and Barela both said during Thursday’s news conference they expected a similar, if not shorter, gap to occur in March, as Congress still has not passed another updated package.
“That creates those gap weeks for individuals – where they continue to struggle, where they are very frustrated, where they can’t pay their rent, they can’t pay their mortgage and they fall behind on bills,” Spesshardt said. “So, while we can catch them up later on, a lot of that damage has already been done to those individuals financially.”
Spesshardt said he believed that had Congress not gone on vacation this week and had been able to pass a bill by Friday, which would have in turned been signed by President Biden, the state could have avoided those reprogramming gaps.
“That hasn’t happened at this point in time. Members of Congress are off this week, meaning that this important work isn’t getting done for citizens out there – not just in Colorado, but in every state – who are suffering and struggling during this period of time,” he said. “This is a point where individuals need to use the power that they have to be pressing their representatives to get something done.”
Barela said the latest information he had received was that the Senate would vote on a package the administration agrees with on March 14.
“Guess what? That’s when this Continued Assistance Act expires. And so, if that happens, we will again go into a gap where we will have to shut down cases and wait for guidance to come out, program systems, and then start paying. So, we’re in the same position we were in in December,” he said. “And so, I want to make sure you all understand that my team has been working nonstop … the department is doing everything we can, and we want to do more, to make sure the people who need money can get it as quickly as possible.”