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Colorado’s unemployment site slammed by 180,000 filing attempts in a single week

Last week’s claims top the Great Recession after coronavirus shutdown advances and governor orders faster relief for workers.

The Colorado Department of Labor and Employment office in Denver's Capitol Hill neighborhood on March 21, 2020. (Eric Lubbers, The Colorado Sun)
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Colorado’s unemployment portal got slammed with 180,000 attempts by people trying to file for benefits online this week during a period where businesses were forced to limit or close down to stop the spread of the contagious COVID-19.

For the same time a week ago, the number was 7,000, according to the state’s Department of Labor and Employment. The extraordinarily high traffic resulted in thousands not completing their claims and, likely, many frustrated users hitting refresh all morning. But the labor agency is working on rolling out updates to its online application system to accommodate the influx of new applicants, said Cher Haavind, the agency’s deputy executive director and spokeswoman, who was working Saturday.

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“We’re seeing a week’s worth of claims in a single day. But we’re not able to get all the claims because not many were able to get through,” since the site can handle only a limited number of requests at a time, Haavind said. “What we’re doing this weekend is creating multiple pathways in.”

There’s already a notice on the site, at coloradoui.gov, to ask users for help with traffic control voluntarily. For applicants whose last name begins with A to M, the site asks that they file on Sunday, Tuesday, Thursday or after noon on Saturday. Everyone else would file on the opposite days. Right now, the suggestions are voluntary but it will be required later next week.

The agency also recommends users save their application frequently and try to file in the early morning hours or after 8 p.m. 

Companies began laying off employees by the thousands after Gov. Jared Polis issued a series of executive orders that pretty much rendered businesses closed. Last weekend, it was ski resorts. On Monday, closures hit bars, restaurants, gyms, casinos and arts and movie theaters. On Wednesday, it was public and private schools. On Thursday, salons, tattoo shops and massage parlors joined the list. 

The state’s unemployment filings shot up Monday, after the prior week’s more typical number of about 2,000 claims — or about 400 a day, according to the labor agency. 

On Monday, 3,900 filed claims. On Tuesday, as the system started to stutter and slow, about 6,800 made an attempt, though not all completed their claims. On Wednesday and Friday, there were 10,000 attempts per day to file a claim. By day’s end on Friday, the agency says that between 26,000 to 28,000 actually filed a claim between Monday to Friday.

The number of calls to its call center also increased 10-fold, with 99,000 calls during the week compared to about 9,900 in the prior week.

“You can track (the increase in unemployment claims) as new public health orders came out. You’re adding employers, industries and all that volume,” Haavind said. 

By comparison, at the peak of the last recession in 2008, the agency dealt with an average of 7,700 unemployment claims a week, she said. 

“Quite frankly, since there’s much more traffic to the site, the number of claims could quadruple,” she said.

Unemployment gives full-time employees 55% of their usual paycheck. And state officials are recommending employers consider alternatives, such as job-attached layoffs or the work-share program if they hope employees will return to the same job after coronavirus is contained. Both options still provide unemployment pay for employees, but employers won’t have to start filling open jobs from scratch.

MORE: Colorado governor asks landlords to forgo evictions, penalties for late rent; forms business-response panel

What’s changing for employees, employers

Major changes will also begin rolling out this upcoming week to make it easier for laid-off workers to get unemployment pay faster, thanks to Polis’ latest executive order on Friday. The order set aside $1 million to improve and expedite the service.

Unemployed workers won’t have to go through a one-week waiting period before unemployment pay kicks in, with payments beginning within 10 days of a completed filing. They also won’t have to prove that they’re searching for another job.

And to help employers, who typically must pay those unemployed workers out of their unemployment accounts, the money will be a “social charge,” which means it comes from the greater trust fund that all of the state’s 160,000 employers pay into. The state’s unemployment trust fund had about $1.1 billion going into last week. 

MORE: Colorado’s unemployment fund is underfunded

Allowing the social charge should really help struggling employers who are already seeing a slowdown in revenues. During the last recession, employers were dinged when they laid off workers and saw their unemployment insurance premiums increase. 

The social charge exists for cases such as an employee who loses a job due to a threat of domestic violence. The social charge means “it doesn’t count against your account,” Haavind said.

The labor agency is also ramping up its call-center staff. Last week, it posted a job announcement to expand its customer service staff by 300 people. It received 300 applications in a few days and half of them will begin training this week to respond to customer questions since applicants can file online at coloradoui.gov or on the phone, at 303-318-9000 or  1-800-388-5515. Call center hours are posted HERE. The web-based service should allow for workers to answer questions from home.

“Every small step is hopefully going to relieve pressure on the system,” Haavind said.


CORRECTION: This story and headline were updated at 7:15 p.m. on March 21, 2020 to reflect 180,000 attempts were filed on the unemployment portal in the last week .

Resources for workers

Unemployment pay

Sick leave

  • Workers in eligible industries (leisure and hospitality; food services; child care; nursing homes and more) can get up to four days of paid sick leave. The FAQs
  • The federal Family and Medical Leave Act provides sick-time leave, though not necessarily payment, for eligible workers affected by the coronavirus. Take up to 12 weeks of unpaid time off and be entitled to job reinstatement.

Employers

  • Opt for the state’s Work-Share program to encourage workers to return. Workers with reduced hours (between 10%-40%) can qualify for a percentage of the lost pay.
  • Seasonal workers or union employees who plan to return to their employer are eligible. Called “job attached,” this helps out seasonal workers who often stop working for up to 16 weeks.

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