Colorado virus-related jobless claims continue surge; COVID-19 rise to 97

An RTD rider waits at a stop on Colfax Avenue, April 2, 2020. RTD has suspended routes as a result of low rider ship during the pandemic.
Photo by Philip B. Poston/Sentinel Colorado

DENVER | Colorado unemployment claims triggered by coronavirus-related job losses continue their surge, with last week’s initial claims roughly eight times the highest recorded during the Great Recession, officials said Thursday.

State health officials said statewide deaths related to COVID-19 pandemic rose to 97 yesterday. As of Tuesday, there were 21 reported outbreaks in Colorado at residential treatment centers, such as nursing homes. Officials reported this summary:

3,728 cases
710 hospitalized
51 counties
20,411 people tested
97 deaths
21 outbreaks at residential and non-hospital health care facilities

In the greater Aurora region, Tri-County Health Department officials reported 952 cases, 286 of those in Aurora. Tri-County reported 19 deaths in Arapahoe, Adams and Douglas counties.

Nearly 62,000 initial unemployment claims were filed with the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment last week, and 81,000 in total for the two weeks ending March 28, the department reported.

By comparison, there were 102,000 initial unemployment claims for all of 2019, said Ryan Gedney, senior economist for the department. The previous state weekly claims record was 7,749 at the height of the Great Recession in 2010.

Initial figures suggest Colorado’s leisure and hospitality industry is the hardest hit so far, Gedney told reporters. Claims in the mining and construction industries also were up, though that may have been driven more by market and seasonal conditions, Gedney said.

Gov. Jared Polis’ orders to close thousands of non-essential businesses, Colorado’s ski resorts in peak season and in-house food service are designed to reduce the coronavirus transmission rate. They also accelerated Colorado’s unemployment claims that have taxed the state labor department’s ability to field and process worker applications for unemployment insurance.

Cher Haavind, the department’s deputy executive director, said changes to the online application system have generally removed backlogs and system errors, but that the 150-person telephone call center is still overwhelmed.

Before the pandemic, Haavind said, department staff fielded an average 1,000 calls a day. On Monday alone, there were 225,000 call attempts; many callers got busy signals and waited interminably on hold. About 90 percent of call center staff are taking calls remotely at home.

Colorado, like other state labor departments, is increasing staff fielding calls, recruiting volunteers from other areas of the labor department and considering outside contractors to make up the shortfall, Haavind said.

Two weeks ago, the surge in claims temporarily jammed the department’s application web page. The department is now asking online claim seekers to apply on different days of the week depending on the first letter of their last name to prevent the site from being overwhelmed.

Colorado is awaiting federal guidance to implement a federal coronavirus emergency package that will allow the state to offer unemployment benefits to gig workers, independent contractors and others currently not eligible, Haavind said. One implemented, benefits will average $1,000 a week.

In other virus-related news:

— El Paso County Sheriff Bill Elder announced Thursday that a sheriff’s detention deputy died Wednesday of COVID-19. El Paso County Public Health will investigate how Deputy Jeff Hopkins, 41, who worked with inmates being booked into and released from jail, may have been exposed to the virus and who may have been exposed to it through him. Hopkins had symptoms of the disease for about a week and had no known underlying health problems, agency medical director Dr. Robin Johnson said.

— Hobby Lobby stores in Colorado closed Thursday after state Attorney General Phil Weiser’s office sent a cease-and-desist order to the Oklahoma City-based firm saying the arts and crafts chain was violating the closure of non-essential businesses.

— Air Force Academy seniors will graduate six weeks early in an online ceremony. The academy will send about 1,000 seniors into officer ranks, forgoing a graduation ceremony drawing of tens of thousands of friends and family, The Gazette reported.