Hello Colorado! I’m starting a new weekly column to help people who have lost a job, are trying to find one or are trying to hire someone.
For now, we’ll call this weekly update What’s Working? (Anyone have a better suggestion?)
As a business reporter covering unemployment and small businesses, I’ve heard from readers desperately seeking more information about the business of jobs during these coronavirus times. There’s a lot I learn about but doesn’t quite make it into a Colorado Sun story.
This column will contain the latest job news you can actually use, practical tips and a place for Sun readers to share job questions — and get them answered. So let’s get started with this week’s latest: Google virtual agent, Phase 2.
No more waiting on hold
If you’re one of the 311,000 Coloradans collecting weekly unemployment benefits, you may have heard that getting help by phone was extremely frustrating.
COVID-19 IN COLORADO
The latest from the coronavirus outbreak in Colorado:
- MAP: Known cases in Colorado.
- TESTING: Here’s where to find a community testing site. The state is now encouraging anyone with symptoms to get tested.
- STORY: Wave of suicides in northwest Colorado part of “toxic stress” from coronavirus, experts say
Not anymore, says the state’s Department of Labor and Employment. All calls are now directed to a Google-powered virtual agent, which the state has been using since mid-July. (Spanish-speaking callers, however, are still routed to a human agent.)
And of 350,000 sessions since July 1, only 13% had questions unanswerable by AI and were scheduled for a call back with a real person.
“There are no wait times. There are no busy signals. This is a fully automated system,” said Cher Haavind, deputy director of the department of labor.
But the first phase of virtual agents could only help answer generic questions. Phase 2, which began late Wednesday, gives virtual agents access to a user’s account for a more personalized response.
The next phase, coming later this month, will include virtual agents that communicate in Spanish.
But a wait to get a call back
But if you are one of the claimants who needs human help, those appointments are now being scheduled for September.
The labor department suggests that folks waiting for their appointment should try out the new and improved virtual agent. If you get an answer, don’t forget to cancel your appointment so someone else can take that spot. And you can cancel your future appointment online, through the virtual agent. But you can’t cancel the appointment through your MyUI account.
For those still waiting, the labor department recently put out a call for 75 new call center workers (sorry — so many candidates applied, the job listing closed after only a few days) and recently added Saturday hours.
If you’re still having trouble getting your questions answered, email me.
The $600 question
As many on unemployment know, the extra $600 of weekly unemployment benefits ended in Colorado on July 25. Unfortunately, there is still not a good update out of Washington, D.C. about whether the federal unemployment benefits will be extended.
*** UPDATE: President Donald Trump signed an executive order on Saturday to move ahead without Congress and extend unemployment benefits by $400 — with $300 coming from federal funds and the remaining $100 from state funds. The extra weekly pay would be available until Dec. 6 and funded with about $44 billion from the Disaster Relief Fund, reported The Wall Street Journal. How states will rolls this out has not yet been determined. ***
For those who are curious about what could be next: The HEROES Act, passed by the U.S. House in May, would extend the $600 unemployment benefits until January 2021. But that seems to be stuck in partisan limbo.
There’s also the $1 trillion HEALS Act, promoted by Senate Republicans, that would:
- Mix state and federal benefits to provide 70% of a jobless worker’s regular income (the state’s unemployment benefits typically provide 55%).
- Higher earners — in Colorado, that would be people who make $83,000 or more — would get less than 70% of their normal pay, according to a CNBC analysis.
- Start in October. Until then, the federal government would pay $200 per week for each jobless worker, down from the $600 per week provided by the CARES Act passed in March.
The bill, however, hasn’t made it out of the Senate. And more bad news, the two sides still don’t seem close as of Friday, with Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer calling it a “disappointing meeting,” according to a CNN Congressional correspondent.
If and when some new law does get passed, officials with Colorado’s Department of Labor and Employment say they’ll just rejigger the system as needed. Likely, those on unemployment won’t have to do anything to receive any extra weekly payment, and payments would be retroactive.
We’ve been tracking the surge in unemployment fraud by thieves using stolen IDs. That’s continuing, and new steps by the state to combat the fraud are working already. Here’s the latest story on that: Fraudulent unemployment claims continue in Colorado, but 30-50% were stopped “at the front door”
The applicants who may have issues getting claims approved are people who qualify for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, which is just like regular unemployment but is available to gig workers, freelancers and the self-employed. Those benefits are funded through the end of the year by the federal government.
This is the program frauders are targeting. Because such jobs don’t usually qualify for state unemployment, the process requires less documentation (there’s no employer to vouch for you), which has made it easier for cyber criminals to pretend they’re someone else and collect a large chunk of change.
If you’re a legitimate PUA claimant that got rejected, you’ll need to call the PUA hotline (at 303-536-5615). Legitimate accounts are typically cleared within 24 hours, said Jeff Fitzgerald, the Department of Labor’s unemployment insurance director.
Are you a victim? A reader told me she received a debit card from U.S. Bank in the mail loaded with unemployment benefits even though she wasn’t unemployed. But when she tried to tell the state about it, the only form she found was one to report a violator.
The labor agency has now revised its form so victims can now let the agency know about the fraud. And if you are a victim, do these 5 things:
- Call the number on the back of the bank debit card and report it. That will deactivate the card and flag the account as fraud so the state can investigate. The labor department, by the way, is in the process of hiring five new fraud investigators.
- Report it to the three credit agencies and put a security freeze on new credit if needed: Equifax: 1-800-525-6285; Experian: 1-888-397-3742; or TransUnion: 1-800-680-7289 or annualcreditreport.com.
- File a police report to get it on the record and have a copy of the report for your files.
- Report it to the Federal Trade Commission at identitytheft.gov
- Document everything for your records.
What unemployed workers need to know today
- The state is running out of unemployment money. Its Trust Fund has about $75 million to $100 million left and the balance is expected to dwindle to zero this month. There won’t be any disruption to benefit payments though because the state will just get a federal loan, as it has in the past. So far, about 10 states and the U.S. Virgin Islands are borrowing federal funds to make their unemployment payments, and Colorado has made a loan request.
- If your benefits have ended, you may qualify for an extra 13 weeks of unemployment pay, funded by the federal CARES Act. The Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation, or PEUC, is separate from regular unemployment so workers must file a separate PEUC claim (and for those whose benefits are expiring, the state agency is reaching out about the extra pay). The state paid out $8.8 million in PEUC claims in the past 13 weeks.
- Nearly the only way to schedule an appointment with a human unemployment agent is by using the new virtual agent at coloradoui.gov. Appointments with human agents are being scheduled for September.
Job of the week
As the coronavirus economy continues to spell bad news for many Coloradans, there’s one industry doing really well: mortgages. Interest rates are way down so people who have a home are refinancing. So when I saw this subject line in my inbox — “AmeriSave Mortgage Hiring to Fill 300 Jobs in Denver ASAP” — I gave them a call.
Carl Smithers, AmeriSave’s senior vice president of consumer direct sales, said the Atlanta-based company picked Denver as one of three new regions to expand. That’s because of the quality of job candidates here, but also we’re closer to the West Coast to help handle inquiries. The company only has a couple of employees here today but is interviewing more — Smithers said he’s already interviewed 35 people.
The top need? Licensed loan officers. And even if you don’t have the experience, AmeriSave is willing to train and work with potential candidates. These roles get a base pay and rely on commission, and also include health care and other benefits. Smithers said he hopes to fill those 300 jobs by the end of first quarter of 2021. Check out current openings at amerisave.com/careers/?p=jobs
Questions from readers have poured into my inbox and I try to get them answered. That helps inform my reporting — like complaints about long hold times that led to this story. Here’s one from this week:
Q: As a freelancer who lost my job because of the COVID economy, I was getting unemployment money through the CARES Act. That dried up on the 25th. Despite that, I went to my Colorado Department of Labor page and found I was being asked to “confirm” another week of unemployment through the end of the month. I did. I checked my bank account this morning. Lo and behold, I had a deposit of about half of what I was getting. …Why do I think the state made a boo-boo and might request me to give back the money? ~ Sandra
Sun: The only thing that ran out on the 25th is the extra $600 a week (the Pandemic Unemployment Compensation).
Freelancers and other gig workers are still able to get PUA — Pandemic Unemployment Assistance. That is also paid out of federal money and stops at the end of the year. It’s similar to “regular” unemployment (folks whose employers pay into the state unemployment insurance fund) so you should be getting around 55% of your past income. But you should try out the new virtual agent to get an answer specific to your case.
So if you’ve read this far, what’s your question? Email me and I’ll try to get it answered: email@example.com.
That’s it for this week. Check back next Saturday (or add it to your Sun newsletter account as a free subscription) for the next edition of What’s Working (or whatever we end up naming this thing).
This story was updated on Aug. 9, 2020 to reflect a presidential order to extend federal unemployment benefits until Dec. 6.
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