If you lose your job in the Vail Valley … | VailDaily.com

If you lose your job in the Vail Valley …

Kristin Anderson/Vail DailyColorado Workforce Center employment specialist Mary Cunningham, right, talks with Manuel Flores about finding work Tuesday in Edwards., Colorado.

VAIL VALLEY, Colorado ” It’s been a long time since Mary Cunningham’s Vail Valley, Colorado office has been this busy this time of year.

Cunningham runs the Colorado Job Service office in Edwards. In the flush times, Cunningham had lots of jobs on the board, and not many applicants. It’s the other way around right now.

“We’re not getting a lot of jobs posted right now,” Cunningham said. “And we’re fielding a lot of calls about unemployment, especially early in the week.”

Unemployment in Eagle County is still running about 1 percent lower than the last published state average of 5.6 percent. But plenty of people are looking for work.

While they look there’s unemployment insurance, state aid for the laid-off or others who have lost their jobs.

While most state officials are currently scrambling to either justify their funding or find ways to cut it, the state’s unemployment offices are a growing operation. New phone operators and representatives have been hired, and the state office’s funding ” supplied by the federal government ” has been increasing.

“It’s ironic that in bad economic times, the unemployment office is hiring,” said Bill Thoennes of the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment. “We’re bringing in 30 more people and 240 more phone lines.”

Those people and phone lines are needed because of demand, of course. Thoennes said people have spent hours on hold over the past couple of months, or, worse, callers will get nothing but busy signals.

With the phone lines humming, the Internet is by far the best way to get an unemployment claim rolling, Thoennes said. And, he added, it’s always a good idea to file for benefits.

There are a few ways to qualify for unemployment insurance, and even more to be denied benefits, Thoennes said.

The bottom line is if you lose your job and it wasn’t your fault, you’re likely eligible for benefits. People who quit, or are fired for cause ” whether the cause is job performance or other problems ” aren’t eligible. But even those fired for cause can file a claim, although there’s a process by which the state will determine whether or not someone is eligible.

It isn’t just people who have been laid off who are eligible for benefits. If someone has to give up a job to care for a sick child or parent, or who has to quit a job because a spouse has found a job elsewhere, can also file for benefits.

But unemployment insurance is intended to be a stopgap way to make ends meet while people are between jobs. Most of the time, work is a better option.

The main catch is the benefit payments. Thoennes said benefit payments can range from as little as $25 to a maximum of $475 per week, based on how much an applicant was making in his or her most recent job. The average benefit payment is about $380 per week.

At the moment, benefits last for up to 26 weeks, although Congress could extend that time.

It can also take four to five weeks, on average, for someone to receive that first unemployment check (Actual checks are rare these days ” most benefits are paid through either a state-issued debit card or direct deposit into a bank account).

Besides long waits for relatively small checks, people drawing unemployment have to “make themselves available” to work in any given week.

“If you end up volunteering so much in a week that you can’t take a job, you may be denied benefits for that week,” said Mike Cullen, director of the state’s unemployment insurance program.

People who decide to start their own, home-based businesses and turn down work to nurture their own ventures can also be denied benefits, Cullen said.

“You have to be available to work,” he said.

But, Cullen said, people are only expected to be available to work in jobs they’re trained to do.

“We don’t expect an architect to take a job at McDonald’s just because that’s the only job available,” he said.

And people can pick up part-time work while drawing unemployment. Cullen said people can earn up to 25 percent of their weekly benefit at other jobs. Any more than that, and checks from the state are reduced dollar for dollar.

Severance packages can be another complication in the unemployment insurance world.

“Any cash payment received from an employer counts against your benefits, but we’ll try to determine how that happens,” Cullen said.

For instance, payment for vacation time or other benefits will delay unemployment payments. But true severance payments will cut the amount of unemployment you can ultimately receive.

“If you could get $10,000 and you get a $5,000 severance payment, your benefit is cut to $5,000,” Cullen said.

For those negotiating the ins and outs of the system, Thoennes said there’s at least some good news.

“We in Colorado are in better shape than many states,” Thoennes said. “We haven’t seen the massive shutdowns they have in Michigan or Ohio. Colorado has a more diversified economy and workforce.”

Business Editor Scott N. Miller can be reached at 748-2930, or smiller@vaildaily.com.

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