More Coloradans applied for unemployment last week than in all of 2019 as coronavirus’ toll deepens

More than 104,000 Coloradans filed for unemployment last week, a single-week record that eclipsed the number of claims filed in all of 2019.

And that’s with a significant chunk of people — the self-employed, freelancers and gig workers without other sources of income — still unable to tap into benefits as the state’s labor office works to turn on a new system that will connect them with support.

Thursday’s claims data was just the latest in a string of jaw-dropping weekly reports from the Colorado Department of Labor of Employment as the COVID-19 pandemic and public safety measures being enforced to fight it continue to put a stranglehold on what just a few months ago was a soaring economy.

Between March 15 and April 11, more than 231,610 people filed initial claims for unemployment in Colorado. It’s a sliver of the 22 million people that have filed nationwide but already approaching the 285,000 initial claims filed in all of 2009 during the depths of the Great Recession.

Ski season has already come to an abrupt end, costing thousands in that industry their jobs. Restaurants, bars and coffee shops, while doing their best to adapting to the new normal of no sit-down business, have shed jobs en masse. The hotel industry is in tatters with demand for rooms practically nonexistent and countless retailers have been forced to sell online or not at all.

Many workers who have not been laid off are working diminished hours, dealing with paid furloughs or having their pay cut. Unemployment insurance is the catch-all program meant to prop them up.

State labor economist Ryan Gedney was asked on a news call Thursday morning if he expects the claims total to continue increasing. At this point, he said he doesn’t have enough data to project out what could happen next. It’s possible claims totals in prior weeks had been artificially depressed by people waiting to file or being prevented from filing by an overloaded online system.

“I don’t think 100,000 (claims) is necessarily going to be representative of what we’ll see on a week-to-week basis,” Gedney said. “Again, we’re only looking at four weeks here.”

The state’s numbers haven’t yet felt the impact of the pandemic unemployment assistance or PUA program, the federal expansion of unemployment benefits launched by the CARES Act stimulus bill. The program opens up benefits to self-employed people and independent contractors for the first time. It also extends the state’s 26 weeks’ worth of regular support to 39 weeks and provides an additional $600 per week to people receiving benefits.

As of Thursday morning, Colorado labor officials still did not have a firm date when the state’s filing system will be ready to accept claims from the expanded pool of eligible workers or approve the $600 per week in expanded benefits. But that date is “very close,” according to Cher Haavind, the department of labor’s deputy executive director.

“A very small group of states has been able to stand up that PUA program and actually pay that benefit,” Haavind said during Thursday news call. “So we do thing Colorado will be one of the few states to actually do both at the same time.”

Jeff Fitzgerald, the state’s unemployment insurance director, emphasized during the call that the pandemic assistance system will not use COBOL, the aged coding language that the state’s core unemployment system uses. A story published by technology news site The Verge this week highlighted Colorado’s reliance on COBOL as a driver for the claims bottleneck at the outset of the pandemic rush.

No matter how Colorado compares to other states when it comes to launching the pandemic benefits, the wait is already weighing on many self-employed people and families waiting on support.

“It’s very frustrating,” Jack Dempsey, a freelance photographer who lives in Thornton, said of the state’s system not be ready to accept his claims.

Dempsey is the team photographer Colorado Mammoth professional lacrosse team that is on the verge of missing its entire season. He also typically covers many other large sporting and corporate events that aren’t happening this year, including the NCAA basketball tournament. After a few “banner months” to start 2020, he is now supporting his wife and daughter with his savings while putting some expenses on credit cards.  He considers himself lucky.

“We’re in a position where we’re not relying on that money today but I know there are thousands and thousands of people who are and for them to be waiting this long to get this implemented is just horrible,” he said.

Dempsey has also applied for a disaster loan from the Small Business Administration and a loan through the already-tapped-out Paycheck Protection Program but isn’t counting on support from either of those programs.

“I feel like we’re being lied to on the government level every day,” Dempsey said. “If they would just be straight up it would make a lot people feel better instead of giving us false hope that these things will come through and then they don’t.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report. 

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