Coloradans may not be able to open new federal unemployment claims for weeks yet

After more than a month of waiting, Coloradans who saw their federal unemployment benefits shut off in December were finally given the green light to reopen their claims this past weekend.

Those who qualify for the two key federal programs but didn’t have an existing claim on Dec. 26 could be waiting for weeks yet before they have the same opportunity, state labor officials said Thursday.

That rollout of the reauthorized Pandemic Unemployment Assistance and Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation programs — serving gig workers, self-employed people and others uniquely impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic — took until late January after state officials waited on federal guidance and then raced to launch the programs on Colorado’s new unemployment system.

On a news call Thursday morning, state labor department chief Joe Barela celebrated the reestablishment of the programs, known as PUA and PEUC, as well as the labor department now being able to pay out $300 per week in boosted unemployment support on claims through mid March. Those boost payments were also included in Congress’ second coronavirus stimulus bill signed into law at the end of December.

“We’ve paid more than $216 million in benefits since Saturday,” Barela said.

Phase 2 will allow people who qualify for the federal programs that didn’t have active claims on Dec. 26 and those who have exhausted their state benefits and now need to switch over to federal support to open claims. But it’s not clear yet when the state’s MyUI+ system will be able to serve those people.

“We had hoped by the end of the month, so we will certainly circle back with everyone when we have a firm date on that,” Cher Haavind, the labor department’s deputy executive director, said Thursday.

By the time that capability is activated, there will be plenty of people from the first phase who will be waiting again. Since claims are being backdated to Dec. 27, some people who had active PUA and PEUC accounts are burning through what they have left in a single payment request and will need to refile in Phase 2.

“I want to make sure that if there is a gap in benefits, and there most likely will be … we will make (claimants) whole,” Barela said. “If they are eligible for any week in that 11-week extension, the system will make them whole when we roll that out.”