Aerial adventure

Mesa County Fairgrounds on Orchard Mesa with the Gunnison River at the top.

The numbers of initial unemployment insurance filers still are historically high, just shy of half a million people in Colorado, but new filers have dropped for the sixth week in a row, state labor officials said Thursday.

By the end of last week, 15,603 more people filed for regular unemployment benefits and 6,635 filed for Federal Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, money available to self-employed and gig workers who don’t qualify for regular unemployment insurance. That brings to 498,851 the number of claims filed since the COVID-19 pandemic began in March.

As businesses have started to reopen, however, only about half of that total were still receiving benefits as of May 16, the latest data available showing the number of continuing claims.

Of the 421,403 people who had filed for regular unemployment benefits by May 16, 264,600 were still receiving benefits, according to the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment.

“While we need a couple more weeks of data to confirm, it does appear that the rise in weekly continued claims is starting to plateau,” said Ryan Gedney, the department’s chief economist. “Over the past five weeks, continued claims have ranged from 228,000 to 264,000, with a weekly average of about 245,000. During the Great Recession, the weekly average for continued claims was around 67,600.”

The state has paid nearly $617 million in regular unemployment benefits in April and May, further depleting Colorado Unemployment Insurance Fund, which is expected to go insolvent by early July. After that, the state is required to borrow money from the federal government to continue paying claims, money the state won’t have to pay interest on for the rest of this year.

Nationally, the number of people who have filed a UI claim since the start of the pandemic has reached more than 40 million, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. That’s about one in four U.S. workers. Still, the national unemployment rate as of May 16 decreased slightly, from 14.7% to 14.5%.

In Colorado, the unemployment rate more than doubled in April to 11.3%, up from 5.4% in March and 2.8% in April 2019. In Mesa County, last month’s unemployment rate was 12.6%.

In the six-county area, more than 20,000 people have filed for unemployment benefits since the pandemic began, with Mesa County accounting for slightly less than half that amount.

As of May 20, 8,747 people have filed for regular UI benefits while another 1,369 self-employed and gig workers have requested federal aid. The next highest claims in the region were in Garfield County, where 4,363 people have requested regular unemployment benefits, and 620 gig workers federal aid.

Rio Blanco County, meanwhile, has been the least hardest hit, with 233 regular claims and only 18 federal filings.

The hardest hit industries continue to be in accommodations and food services, although that is expected to dramatically reduce now that restaurants were allowed to reopen around the state this week.