Unemployed Coloradans won’t face a cutoff in federal benefits this weekend

True to its name, the American Rescue Plan has arrived in the nick of time to prevent hundreds of thousands of Colorado workers collecting unemployment benefits from getting cut off for the second time in three months.

“It is our top priority to ensure that Coloradans experience a seamless transition,” said Joe Barela, executive director of the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment during a news call Thursday.

That isn’t to say Congress didn’t cut it close in passing the $1.9 trillion stimulus measure. Unemployment benefits under two key programs, Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) and Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation (PEUC), were set to expire on Saturday.

Lawmakers met the deadline, and they avoided adding new programs or features requiring extensive reprogramming of state computer systems, which could have also delayed payments. Original versions of the stimulus bill boosted the $300 a week in extra federal payment by another $100, but the Senate nixed that, contributing to a smoother transition.

“Congress also listened to the people. They kept things simple. This allows it to be an easy lift,” said Phil Spesshardt, the acting director of the state’s unemployment insurance division.

The CDLE asked for and received permission to distribute the latest round of federal payments before receiving official guidance from the U.S. Department of Labor. But it still had to wait to move forward until President Joe Biden signed the measure into law, which he did on Thursday.

The CDLE estimated that 280,000 people lost benefits in Colorado on Dec. 26 because Congress didn’t approve additional funding in time. Some recipients had to wait two months to have benefits restored, leaving them in desperate financial straits.

The state’s MyUI+ system will go down at 7 p.m. Friday and return at 3 a.m. Saturday to accommodate the changes, Spesshardt said. But that should be it. Unlike in early January, the state won’t be dealing with an upgrade of its benefits system, which complicated an already complicated situation.

PUA, a program available to self-employed workers not covered under state programs, and PEUC, a federal program that covers workers who run through their state unemployment benefits, have both been extended through Sept. 6. The hope is that will buy enough time for the vaccine rollout to jump-start an economic recovery and get more people employed.

At the end of February, an estimated 207,686 continuing unemployment claims were active in the state. Since the pandemic started, 1.1 million valid unemployment claims have been filed, said Ryan Gedney, a senior labor economist with the CDLE.

Colorado has faced a similar number of claims suspected to be fraudulent. Those have bogged down an already overtaxed system, diverted valuable staff resources and in some cases delayed payments to legitimate recipients.

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