Only a third of jobless Coloradans receiving unemployment benefits

Colorado’s unemployment trust fund is full and weekly payments are some of the highest in the nation, but just a third of unemployed Coloradans are receiving benefits.

An investigation by non-profit news source ProPublica found only six states pay higher unemployment benefits than Colorado’s $354.98 a week. The state also has the 15th largest unemployment trust fund balance. The state has also avoided borrowing money for its trust fund, unlike 14 other states.

Colorado has $452,183,000 in its fund. But only 32 percent of people eligible for benefits are taking them. That’s the lowest percentage of unemployed people receiving benefits in all but two other states — South Dakota (31 percent) and Texas (28 percent) — and ties with two more states. 

Reasons for the low rate of people receiving unemployment benefits in Colorado vary from person to person, said Gilbert Lujan, a supervisor at the Mesa County Work Force Center.

One possibility is that certain unemployed Coloradans see taking benefits as a last resort.

“The people that we usually see (about benefits) are usually and unfortunately on their last resources, so by the time they get to the Work Force Center, they’ve expended all the resources available to them,” including savings, extensive job searches and other programs, Lujan said.

Another possibility is that tied-up phone lines at the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment, the agency that handles unemployment claims, have deterred claimants with hour-or-more-long call waiting periods to file or ask questions. Even online filing has been too busy at times to let someone file. The department announced a phone system restructure to make filing easier June 3.

Lujan said he’s coached people through the filing process, from filing every other week and reporting wages earned to applying for five jobs a week and reporting why a person denied a job offer if one was made.

“One wrong step in the process and it can backlog the process, and it’s hard to get ahold of someone on the customer service line,” he said.

Another possibility is that some people are still unemployed but ran through their benefits before congressional and state moves lengthened the time a person could take benefits, said Bill Thoennes, a spokesman for the Colorado department of labor and employment.

The state paid 26 weeks of unemployment until earlier this year, when the federal government agreed to pay for another 20 weeks. The federal government tacked on another 13 weeks of payment, and then the state decided recently to pay for another 20 weeks if someone is still unemployed after receiving 59 weeks of benefits.

“To have that kick in three times is an indicator people are really struggling,” Thoennes said. “It may have something to do with the sheer length of this recession. It’s not as easy as honing some skills and getting re-employed right away.”

Of all 50 states, Colorado had the third highest number of people getting off of benefits, either because they found a job or their benefit period ran out, in the first quarter of 2009, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. The state was also 30th in initial benefit claims.


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