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Calling Colorado’s unemployment line? You might end up talking to a Google-powered AI

The Colorado Department of Labor and Employment is also working to address $17.5 million in overpayments, a depleted Trust Fund and the approaching end of $600 weekly pandemic payments

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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The massive numbers of Coloradans who lost their jobs in the coronavirus pandemic will soon find their calls for unemployment help answered by an automated service powered by Google — including setting up a call back with an actual human.

The artificial-intelligence system is expected to resolve issues for up to 30% of current callers starting Wednesday, and up to 50% when a more personalized service rolls out in August. 

“There’s still a gap there,” said Jeff Fitzgerald, the state’s unemployment insurance director. But, he added, “Experience tells us that the virtual agent is 90% accurate in terms of deploying information, so  that’s an exceptionally high rate in terms of getting the customers what they need in the initial inquiry.”

The state’s unemployment call centers have been deluged with calls since Colorado companies were forced to limit operations in mid-March. At one point, the labor department said that call center agents were getting to only 6% of the calls. They’re now handling 33% of the 12,000 calls each day, Fitzgerald said.

Coloradans with an unemployment question will be able to ask a virtual agent online or on the phone 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The online version will be more user friendly since the phone version will just read a menu of options. If the virtual agent is unable to find the answer, it will schedule a call back with a human agent so the consumer doesn’t have to keep calling back after the call center opens at 8 a.m.

The virtual agent will guide the user through common issues, such as how to reopen a file, manage an existing claim, report weekly earnings or get help with work-search requirements. In August, a more robust virtual agent will be able to access the user’s file and answer specific questions for that particular claim.    

New unemployment claims decline

Since March 29, Colorado’s unemployment system has handled 617,481 claims for unemployment benefits and paid out $3.27 billion. 

Most was covered  by the federal government as part of the CARES Act, which provides an additional $600 per week of Pandemic Unemployment Compensation, or PUC, to anyone on regular unemployment. It also pays out $600 a week to a set of workers who don’t qualify for state benefits. This Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, or PUA, helps self-employed and gig workers. 

New regular unemployment claims have been in decline for the past month, with 7,854 new regular claims made in the latest week, ended July 4. The state paid $83.6 million in benefits during the week. 

By comparison, during the Great Recession between 2009 and 2010, the state paid out an average of $19 million a week. The highest number of weekly new claims was 7,749 in the week of Jan. 9, 2010.

Fraud still monitored

PUA claims have also declined since hitting a high of 17,945 during the week of June 13. It dropped to 5,900 for the week ended July 4.

But that June 13 week was an anomaly blamed on fraud.

Thieves used stolen personal information to claim the $600 weekly benefit for users who were either retired or still employed. Victims began receiving debit cards in the mail or notices that they had filed for unemployment.

The labor department cracked down on 5,600 suspicious PUA claims that week and stopped allowing people to retroactively request payments back to February. The action prevented $34 million in payments from being paid. The state added fraud-prevention tips for those who suspect their identity is being misused. They should check their credit reports and report ID theft to the Federal Trade Commission. 

“We think that we have put adequate fraud detection and prevention measures in place that are working, largely based on what we’re seeing with those PUA claims spiking significantly in other states,” said Cher Haavind, the labor department’s deputy director

The Trust Fund running out of money

Paying more than $80 million each week in unemployment benefits has taken a toll on the state’s Unemployment Insurance Trust Fund, which started the pandemic with $1.1 billion. That fund has been severely depleted and has a balance of around $325 million to $350 million, said Ryan Gedney, the labor department’s senior economist.

Assuming that the state will continue paying about $85 million in benefits a week and relying on employers to contribute $100 million to $120 million in the second quarter, the trust fund is now expected to run out of money by mid-to-late August. 

At that point, a federal loan, at 0% interest till the end of 2020, will kick in so everyone on regular unemployment will still be paid. 

The $600 pandemic pay ends July 25

But for folks getting the federal $600 weekly payment in addition to regular unemployment benefits, that Pandemic Unemployment Compensation supplement is slated to end July 25. The program has so far paid $1.76 billion to Coloradans on unemployment. 

The separate Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, or PUA, for gig workers is expected to end at the end of the year. Payments to these workers totaled $373.4 million between March 29 and July 4.

There are talks in Congress to extend both programs but possibly reduce the weekly payments. But so far, nothing has been approved.

“We doubt, from what we’re hearing from our staffer friends on the Hill, that they will actually make a decision before July 25,” Haavind said. “And so it is very likely that there will be a gap of some sort in that $600 a week benefit.” 

$17.5 million in overpayments 

Between the confusion of federal and state unemployment benefits plus competing federal programs, the labor department detected $17.5 million in overpayments to unemployed workers.

Haavind said that this makes up less than 1% of all benefits paid so far and should be expected even if there wasn’t high unemployment. 

Overpayments occur, for example, when an employee’s job ends based on reasons that disqualify them for unemployment benefits. Typically, people who quit their jobs or are dismissed for misconduct don’t qualify for unemployment. Only those who are unemployed “through no fault of your own” qualify. Employers could also appeal the benefit, at which point the payment could be overturned and the employee would have to pay it back. The department is working with claimants who have received overpayments.

The federal Paycheck Protection Program also created complications. The program offers low-interest loans to small businesses affected by the coronavirus. But to turn the loan into a grant, the employer must keep its employees employed and not cut salaries. If businesses with PPP loans paid workers who, in turn, still collected unemployment, that would be deemed an overpayment. 

As loans were issued, some employers found it difficult to rehire their workers who made more on unemployment, thanks to additional $600 in weekly federal benefits. 

If those workers are refusing to return to their jobs, they could be kicked off unemployment. So far, employers have made 3,100 claims that workers refused to return to work. The labor agency excuses workers who are part of a population vulnerable to coronavirus or live with someone who is, so those workers can stay on employment. But about 17.5% of the job refusals were deemed legitimate, so those workers lost their benefits.

Colorado unemployment resources

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