Deluge of jobless in Colorado prompts changes |

Deluge of jobless in Colorado prompts changes

Allison Sherry
The Denver Post

The state labor and employment office is now open Sundays, and it is extending the time to file claims and adding staff to accommodate a crush of people trying to get unemployment benefits.

In October, the office was dealing with 500 new claim applications a day. That number grew to more than 1,000 this month.

“This tsunami has been huge and largely caught everyone off-guard,” said Don Mares, executive director of the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment. “It’s been coming so fast and furious.”

Now, between 10 and 15 people are working from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Sundays. The time allowed to file a continued claim has been extended from seven to 14 days, and the department is adding 50 workers.

The effort, paid for by the federal government, comes after hundreds of frustrated people couldn’t get through to the office after trying dozens, even hundreds, of times.

The office also is revamping its website to allow employers and unemployed claimants access to information they previously had to call a live person for, Mares said.

Greg Stavaridis, a Lakewood man laid off Jan. 22 from a downtown business-development job, called hundreds of times in half-hour increments before finally getting through last week.

“I need the money, and I’m trying to do something about it,” he said.

Even without the crush of applicants, Colorado is among the toughest places nationally to qualify for unemployment benefits. The state ranks 51st, next to Puerto Rico, in the percentage of unemployed people receiving benefits, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

Though more than 95 percent of workers pay into the system, only 21 percent qualify to get help here.

Nationally, about 36 percent of unemployed people qualify for benefits, and in some states, such as New Mexico, more than 50 percent of unemployed people can get some help.

Among the ineligible in Colorado are workers who quit their jobs to join a spouse who was relocated and those laid off from a job they just landed. The state also has rules excluding people who don’t make enough money.

“It’s outrageous to me that people can’t get the benefits they need and that really help all of us,” said Kathy White, a program director at the Colorado Fiscal Policy Institute.

Generally, to receive unemployment insurance in Colorado, a person has to make at least $2,500 in the “base period,” the first four quarters of the last consecutive five quarters.

A person is eligible, depending on the work situation, for about 39 weeks of payments and can make anywhere between $25 and $475 a week in benefits. To make the top amount, a worker had to make $49,500 in the base period.

That changes some under the new federal stimulus package, which starting this week gives an extra $25 a week for anyone collecting money. Eligibility time also was extended by 13 weeks.

Employees can get unemployment benefits if they quit a job, but in Colorado, the allowable circumstances are narrow ” employees need to prove it was through no fault of their own.

State officials say they’re working with lawmakers to tweak a few state laws to qualify for an additional $127.5 million in federal dollars, including rules for part-time workers and allowing workers to collect unemployment benefits if they quit work for “compelling personal reasons.”

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