After weeks of random and unsuccessful calls to the state’s unemployment phone number, Jamie Scappaticci set aside Tuesday to connect with any living soul who’d answer the unemployment help line at 800-388-5515.
The first-time filer had mistakenly let her benefits lapse in mid-April because she didn’t realize those on unemployment must request a payment every two weeks. So on Tuesday, she started calling at 8 a.m., when the call center opened.
COVID-19 IN COLORADO
The latest from the coronavirus outbreak in Colorado:
- LIVE BLOG: The latest on closures, restrictions and other major updates.
- MAP: Cases and deaths in Colorado.
- TESTING: Here’s where to find a community testing site. The state is now encouraging anyone with symptoms to get tested.
- VACCINE HOTLINE: Get up-to-date information.
- STORY: Colorado nursing homes with the most coronavirus deaths were cited for poor infection control
“I was getting in about five calls a minute, and maybe every 60 or so I would get into the recording. The rest of them would either just hang up on me immediately, or give me the option to choose English and then hang up on me,” said Scappaticci, an Aurora resident who expects to return to her early-childhood center job in June. “And finally, at about 12:30, I got on the phone with someone who just said, ‘Yup, you can change your status to active online now.’”
Much has changed since nearly a half-million Coloradans began filing for unemployment benefits in mid-March. And those who’ve spent hours on hold — the average wait time has been 47 minutes — may not realize the answers and updates are now available, or have been there all along.
Since the start of coronavirus-related business closures, the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment upgraded its computer systems to handle the influx, quadrupled the support staff to answer calls and provided an abundance of information on its site at coloradoui.gov — so unemployed workers should check it frequently.
But there are also 10 to 30 times more people calling in every day for help and only 6% of calls to the regular unemployment line have been getting answered, according to the agency. Another 12,918 unique phone numbers per day get a busy signal or a message to call back later. And for months, the unemployed could not send an email or leave a message — even to fix a simple error such as the wrong furlough start date, as one Colorado Sun reader had done.
The ability to leave a message and get a call back is coming, possibly even this week.
“At a high level, I can say that where we can automate or schedule a callback for the issues causing a call, we’re implementing some of those solutions,” said Cher Haavind, deputy executive director for the Department of Labor. “We’ve been making changes daily.”
Alternatives to a phone call
In two months, the agency has rolled out several alternatives to a phone call and continues to add new self-help features. Expect more how-to videos, callback forms and more technology, like virtual agents, to handle the volume of calls.
On Thursday, the state labor department announced a new partnership with Google to add callbacks and more virtual support for common issues from callers, and added a request form for claimants to backdate claims without calling in. The department will also reopen its lobby at 251 E. 12th Ave. in Denver on June 8 for in-person meetings, but only by appointment, which will start June 1. (Updated 5/28/20)
The new measures are to address the most common reasons people call in. Those are to check on a claim status, backdate a claim, reopen a claim, ask banking or payment questions, inquire about missing wages, exhausted benefits, job refusals and pandemic benefits.
So far, the state says 86% of the folks who have filed a claim are receiving the benefit, while the others are still being processed. That seems to be a better stat than the rest of the nation’s unemployed; one expert has estimated only 60% have been paid nationally, according to a Bloomberg News story.
Haavind said the state’s call center went from one staffed to handle record-low unemployment rates of 2.5% to record highs within weeks. Improvements were made in the first week and continued to be made.
“Along with that came 1,000 calls a day to 20 or 30,000. We’ve made system improvements as we were able to and we will continue to make improvements, but we are still in a fairly new territory,” she said. “And quite frankly, it’s our first pandemic.”
There are other things that are new or have changed. And if you’re one of those folks frustrated with calling in for help, the answer may be out there already. Here are some changes made since March:
- If you are newly unemployed and must call in about filing for the first time, fill out this form to get a call back.
- There’s now a PIN request form
- An unemployment insurance chatbot debuted April 22 to answer simple questions, such as who gets that extra $600 a week from the federal government (Answer: Anyone receiving any amount of regular unemployment pay for the week.)
- The agency hosts virtual town halls to answer questions from workers. The next one is set for Friday, May 29, at 9:15 a.m. in English and 11:30 a.m. in Spanish (register at colorado.gov/pacific/cdle/covid-19/town-halls).
What hasn’t changed
Regular unemployment benefits are 55% of a person’s average weekly salary (including tips) over a 12-month period. The maximum benefit is $618 per week and is paid for 26 weeks. Only W-2 workers, or traditional workers whose employers pay for unemployment insurance, are eligible for the pay.
Once registered, you’ll get a PIN by email or snail-mail to access benefits (manage them at myui.coworkforce.com/Welcome) and to request payments every two weeks. You’ll also need to register with a local workforce center at ConnectingColorado.com to look for a job to remain eligible for benefits — although this requirement has been waived during the pandemic.
Also waived: the waiting week. Requests for payment can be made after registering. (Payment requests typically begin two weeks after filing for unemployment.) It’s now taking two to six weeks to get a payment, depending on how complicated the case is.
PUA, PUC and what else changed with coronavirus
Everyone who qualifies for even just $1 of regular unemployment benefits, will be paid an extra $600 per week as part of the Pandemic Unemployment Compensation (PUC), thanks to the federal CARES Act.
- Benefits are retroactive to March 29 and, if you remain eligible, can last until the end of July
- Those on regular unemployment don’t have to do a thing to get PUC. The benefit is paid as part of their regular bi-monthly request
- The CARES Act also adds 13 weeks of benefits and can be paid out until Dec. 26.
The CARES Act also provides $600 a week to workers who don’t qualify for unemployment benefits because they don’t normally pay for unemployment insurance. These are the PUAs, or Pandemic Unemployment Assistance claimants, and include independent contractors, freelancers, gig workers, the self-employed and others who typically receive 1099 tax forms.
Colorado began accepting claims for PUA on April 20. More than 70,813 have applied, including nearly 41,000 in the first week.
- Register for PUA: pua.clouduim.cdle.state.co.us
- Calls inquiring about PUA claims have been much simpler with average hold times of 3 minutes. Callers should not be having trouble getting through.
- A caveat: For self-employed workers who earned at least $2,500 in the past 18 months and filed a W-2 form, federal law requires those folks to file for regular state unemployment first and exhaust those benefits before applying for PUA.
One issue some employers have is in rehiring workers to reopen their business or qualify for federal Paycheck Protection Plan loan forgiveness. Some workers don’t want to return to old jobs because they make more money on unemployment. Employers can file a job-refusal form, which the labor agency investigates. It’s a case-by-case ruling by the state. If a worker is part of a vulnerable group, for example, the employee doesn’t have to return to the job. If not, the worker’s unemployment benefits are suspended.
A worker could also lose unemployment benefits if they return to work part-time or receive other job compensation that is higher than their regular unemployment benefits. That means they also lose the pandemic bonus.
If you’re going to call in…
In the first week that hordes of workers lost their jobs due to coronavirus closures, the state’s unemployment call centers saw calls increase 10 fold, with 99,000 calls in a week compared to 9,900 the prior week.
Now, the state is getting anywhere from 10,000 to 30,000 calls a day, though most likely the same people are calling in multiple times an hour. Another Sun reader, Mike Egan, shared that he called 85 times around 3:30 p.m. on Friday. He was disconnected 83 times but the two times he got through, he was subsequently disconnected.
Within a month of the governor’s first orders to restrict crowds, the state’s unemployment agency had doubled the staff from 57 agents in early March at its call centers. It now employs about 250 people, though some are still in training. That includes temps and more than 90 agents working at an outsourced call center to handle pandemic claims.
But if you must call in, here’s what to expect, according to data shared by the Labor Department:
- 47 minutes — Average wait times for regular unemployment between May 1-11.
- 3 minutes — Average wait times for pandemic calls
- 13 minutes — Average call length for regular unemployment
- 10 minutes — Average call for pandemic calls
- 1,000 to 1,200 calls are answered daily on the regular employment line
- 2,200 to 2,500 calls are answered daily at the pandemic call center
- 12,918 unique numbers per day get a busy signal or message to call back later due to “high call volume”
- Call centers are open from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday. But you might get a call back on Saturday, when the call center makes only outbound calls to claimants who’ve asked for help.
Colorado unemployment resources
- File a claim: coloradoui.gov/fileaclaim
- Don’t want to wait on hold? First-time claimants fill out this call back form
- Never got or lost your PIN? Fill out this form
- Fix a date or backdate an existing claim: Fill out this form
- Request a payment: myui.coworkforce.com/Login/Index
- Change payment method: Start here
- Reopen a claim: Start here
- Ask a question at Dept. of Labor virtual town hall: colorado.gov/pacific/cdle/covid-19/town-halls
- Get help by phone for regular unemployment (expect a long wait): 303-318-9000 or 1-800-388-5515; Spanish: 303-318-9333 or 1-866-422-0402; Deaf or hard of hearing: 303-318-9016 or 800-894-7730
- For Pandemic Unemployment Assistance: File here or call 303-536-5615
- Schedule an in-person appointment: colorado.gov/pacific/cdle/ui-contact-us
- Request a payment every other week: 303-813-2800, 888-550-2800 or at myui.coworkforce.com/Welcome
- Rejected? Appeal online or call 303-318-9299 (FAQs on appeals)
- Didn’t get paid? File a wage complaint (More info here)
- Search for a job: connectingcolorado.com, OnwardCO.org
- Frequently updated: coloradoui.gov
This story was updated at 11 a.m. on May 28, 2020 to include new tools and measures the Colorado Department of Labor is rolling out by June 1, 2020.