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One of the most unpleasant tasks confronting employers during the COVID-19 pandemic is laying off employees.

Besides the pain of having to break up what often is a workplace family, employers must negotiate new unemployment and assistance rules to make sure they handle layoffs in a way that maximizes benefits for both themselves and their workers.

That’s one of several areas in which the Pikes Peak Workforce Center has been helping businesses and employees.

Companies considering laying off or furloughing workers should take into account the different programs available through the Colorado Department of Labor’s unemployment division, as well as how they want their business to look after the crisis passes, said Traci Marques, PPWFC executive director and CEO. 

“It’s really important for businesses to start strategizing for how they are going to have that same talent they had before this,” she said.

There are two main alternatives to laying off employees, Marques explained.

The work-share program allows employees to keep working but with fewer hours.

“You pay them while they’re working for you, but [for] the time that they’re not working for you, they can file for unemployment,” Marques said. 

According to the department of labor, employers must reduce normal work hours by at least 10 percent but not more than 40 percent to qualify for work-share. The reduction must affect at least two employees, and the employer must meet certain criteria in payment of unemployment insurance premiums.

A second alternative is job attachment. Employees are considered job-attached if an employer plans to bring them back within 16 weeks of their last day of work. 

If employees have been hired and the employer expects to bring them on within two weeks, they are also considered job-attached.

In both cases, employees are able to receive unemployment benefits.

There are numerous factors to consider in determining whether to use one of these strategies or to simply lay off employees, and the workforce center has been working directly with employers to help them decide.

Whatever method an employer chooses, the workforce center provides guidance and “a human touch,” Marques said. 

Laid-off employees have many questions about the complex process of applying for unemployment benefits and issues such as what to do if they are losing health insurance or their 401(k) package.

“In the traditional, old-school way, we would go to a company and work one-on-one with employees and help them with resumé writing and interview skills and identifying transferable skills, and bringing in other companies that may want to hire them,” Marques said. “Now everything’s gone virtual.”

She said the workforce center plans to start offering a webinar one day a week for people who’ve been laid off, “giving them all the guidance that we normally give face to face.”

The webinar, which Marques expects will be online next week, will cover filing for unemployment, where to go to get interim health care benefits, what to do with a 401(k) and other topics.

Virtual delivery of services is a model that will likely carry over into the future.

“I think we’re going to learn some best practices out of this,” Marques said, “and I think our norms are going to be different in reaching out to people and hiring practices.”

HELPING EMPLOYERS HIRE

PPWFC is also helping employers hire new workers.

Recently the workforce center collaborated with a company that wanted to fill more than 100 high-end, work-from-home call center positions.

“They want to eventually ramp that up to 500 positions by the end of the year,” Marques said. 

PPWFC works with a state-run database, ConnectingColorado.com, that helps job seekers in search of work and employers looking for employees.

All jobs that are registered on the site are vetted by workforce center staff.

“Within the last week, we had over 500 jobs added to that database,” Marques said. “So we are seeing people hiring — just not at the rate that it was.”

In addition, the workforce center is offering three virtual job fairs, Communications Manager Becca Tonn said.

A general fair with 53 employers is running through the end of April. Job seekers access it by opening a free account at ConnectingColorado.com, she said.

A second job fair for Teller County residents will run April 29-May 19, and a third fair for military, veterans and spouses will be posted from May 21 to June 12.

The workforce center and Pikes Peak Small Business Development Center are working together closely to help employers navigate the pandemic.

“I am on the [workforce center’s] executive team, making sure that small businesses are always represented in workforce discussions,” Pikes Peak SBDC Executive Director Aikta Marcoulier said. “Traci and I talk every day.”

Both organizations function within complicated regulatory structures and help each other understand how their systems interface.

“We’re experts in what we do, but we don’t have the capacity to navigate the Colorado and national departments of labor,” Marcoulier said.

INCREASED WORKLOAD

Prior to the pandemic, “we were receiving maybe 25 calls a day,” Marques said. “We’re now averaging over 160 calls a day,” at 20-30 minutes per call.

Many of those callers are people with questions and frustrations because they can’t get through to register for unemployment.

“While we’re not the unemployment office, we’re directly related to them — so we’re able to answer some of those basic unemployment questions, and we can help walk them through that,” Marques said.

The workforce center’s staff of four full-time counselors “has had people cry on the telephone with relief of someone actually being able to answer some simple questions,” she said. “We have people that call and they need to yell at someone, and my staff is a sounding board for them.”

Other callers just need reassurance that, although it’s a difficult time, they will get through it.

The workforce center’s team has been especially busy taking calls from self-employed and gig workers.

New unemployment rules that went into effect April 20 allowed these workers — and others who have not traditionally been eligible — to collect unemployment benefits.

“We are actually increasing our hiring right now,” Marques said. “We’re hiring nine people.”

Before the workforce center closed its doors and switched to virtual operation, it was seeing about 125 walk-ins per day.

“We anticipate that doubling or tripling by the time we start opening the doors,” Marques said.

HELPING JOB SEEKERS

Meanwhile, the workforce center continues to offer services to people who have been laid off and are looking for new jobs.

This could be a good time to search for a new job “if you’re in an emotional state to be able to do that and really be able to actively look,” Marques said. “There are a lot of great free tools on our website.”

The website links to other sites where job seekers can assess possibilities for their next career move and find additional training to prepare for it.

“A lot of companies and organizations are offering free online training for a short period of time,” Marques said. “If you can take advantage of those opportunities, when we do find our new norm, you’re offering an enhanced skill set.”

PPWFC can help some people with training if they are eligible for one of the center’s programs under the federal Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act. Eligibility is based on criteria such as income and barriers to employment.

“To find out if they’re eligible, they’d have to work with a case manager,” Tonn said. Qualifying individuals may choose a training program through a list of providers.

The workforce center will be offering an online resumé workshop next week and has added several live videos to its workshop page on creating a better resumé, how to interview and an introduction to workforce center services, Tonn said.

Marques advises people facing unemployment not to give up hope.

“There are people available and trusted, reliable resources that have been there before,” she said. “Community partners and organizations like the Workforce Center can help you walk through this and journey with you.”

RESOURCES FOR JOB SEEKERS

Colorado.gov/cdle/unemployment

OnwardCO.org

ConnectingColorado.com

PPWFC.org/workshop-videos

PPWFC.org/annual-spring-job-fair