‘Matter of life and death’ when federal unemployment benefits lapse, Denver marchers say

Congress fails to extend $600 weekly payments as Colorado’s unemployment rate exceeds 10%

Activists marched in a mock funeral procession in Denver to protest the expiration of a federal unemployment benefit. (Chase Woodruff/Colorado Newsline)

Outside the headquarters of the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment in Denver on July 24, unemployed restaurant workers and labor groups held a mock funeral to protest the expiration of the $600-per-week federal unemployment benefit authorized by the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act in March.

They held cardboard coffins and gravestones bearing slogans like “R.I.P. My Ability to Feed My Kids” and “R.I.P. Having a Roof Over My Head.”

Demonstrator Elise Gantzler didn’t mince words when asked what the expiration of the $600-per-week benefit would mean for many of the hundreds of thousands of Coloradans who are out of work due to the coronavirus pandemic.

“Death,” Gantzler said. “That’s why we’re doing this funeral. This is literally a matter of life and death.”

More than one in 10 Coloradans is currently out of work, according to the state’s most recent estimates. Initial unemployment claims have fallen sharply since their April peak, but amid the ongoing economic fallout from the pandemic — and uncertainty about a wave of new infections that has hit the state in recent weeks — Colorado’s unemployment rate rose again in June, edging upwards by three-tenths of a percent after falling in May.

Nearly 400,000 Coloradans claimed unemployment benefits last month — almost triple the number of people who claimed benefits during the worst months of the Great Recession in 2010, according to a CDLE report.

Gantzler, a 10-year veteran of the restaurant industry, was laid off just after the onset of the pandemic in March, and although she filed an unemployment claim immediately, still waited a month to receive her first payment.

“That was a really scary month, to not know when I was going to get money, how I was going to pay rent, buy food, anything like that,” she said. “And a month wasn’t even that long, compared to (how long) some people have waited. Some people didn’t get benefits for several months, some people didn’t get any at all.”

More than half of the $253 million in benefits paid out to unemployed Coloradans in the week ending July 18 came from the CARES Act’s $600-per-week boost, according to CDLE data. That benefit expires on July 25.

“That extra $600 was absolutely crucial to me,” Gantzler said. “Without it, I would have been receiving $320 a week, and my rent is $1,000 a month.”

Signs protesting the expiration of unemployment payments left outside Sen. Cory Gardner’s office. (Chase Woodruff/Colorado Newsline)

Led by a hearse, protesters later marched to Sen. Cory Gardner’s office in Denver’s Federal District, where they laid their gravestone signs on the steps of the U.S. Custom House and rallied in opposition to Colorado’s embattled Republican senator.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell told reporters on Friday that he hopes to pass a new coronavirus relief bill “by the end of the next few weeks,” according to the Washington Post. Members of Congress remain split on whether to extend the CARES Act’s unemployment-insurance boost, with many Republicans reportedly pushing for the $600-per-week benefit to be sharply reduced, if it’s reinstated at all.

Outside Gardner’s office, protesters said that the impact of the benefit’s lapse in the days and weeks ahead will be devastating — even deadly.

“For so many restaurant workers, this extra $600 a week has been the first time in their life that they’ve had some modicum of control over their future,” said activist Daniel Grosso. “And yet Cory Gardner and Congress are letting them expire — and letting us expire with them.”