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What’s Working: Spanish-speaking virtual agents, extra $300 weeks approved and a new small business fund

PUA claims are up because of ... fraud? Plus, the wait to get a call back from the unemployment office is now “four to eight weeks."

The Pikes Peak Workforce Center opened a temporary facility in June for unemployed workers who needed access to a computer to find a job. The space has 50 computers that are six feet apart instead of three feet. The building is located at 1049 North Academy Boulevard in Colorado Springs and is open by appointment to job seekers through Dec. 11. (Provided by Pikes Peak Workforce Center)
  • Credibility:

Colorado is on track to start paying an extra $300 a week in mid-September to anyone eligible for unemployment benefits — including gig workers — between July 26 and Aug. 15. 

Well, not quite everyone. Excluded are folks who earned $99 or less during that period (sorry to the reader who wrote in about missing the cut-off by $1). That’s 6% of Coloradans who collected unemployment during that period who won’t get the extra money.

But that’s not new.

What is new this week is that Colorado has the go ahead to apply for an additional two weeks of Lost Wages Assistance program money, which would extend benefits to Aug. 29. More weeks could be approved, but there’s a $44 billion limit to the federal funding and about 35 states have applied.

The money could also run out before the $44 billion is used up because it’s coming out of a Federal Emergency Management Administration program that typically sends money to regions experiencing a disaster. If FEMA’s Disaster Relief Fund drops to $25 billion (it had $70 billion when President Donald Trump ordered to tap it for unemployment) or the Senate passes its own relief package, then the LWA is over. 

If you think you qualify for LWA, you don’t have to do a thing. The money will be added to the eligible accounts.

Getting human help

If you’re waiting for a callback from an unemployment agent but get your question answered earlier, cancel your original appointment so it opens up for someone else. The unemployment office says 25% of scheduled appointments are no shows, as this column mentioned last week

That’s a big deal because even though the unemployment call center added 20 more human agents this week and improved its virtual agent responses, people still want to talk to a person. 

And that’s taking four to eight weeks to schedule, which takes us into October. 

PLEASE NOTE: You may be able to snag an earlier appointment but in order to see what’s available, you must cancel your existing appointment. So, DON’T CANCEL IT! Hunt around first for an answer on the state’s unemployment site or chat with the virtual agent to resolve your issue first. 

The only way to make multiple appointments is to use different phone numbers, but if you snag an earlier time, please cancel the older one.

Virtual agent update

Virtual agents can now respond in Spanish!

The virtual agents can also probe deeper into a user’s question to find out more about why a hold on benefits was made. 

Cher Haavind, deputy director of the Department of Labor, said that the virtual agent works so much better on a computer. But it also kicks in when people call the unemployment hotline — and 80% of the virtual requests are coming in by phone.

“It’s far more accurate than by phone and it just provides a greater user experience overall,” Haavind said. 

Unemployment help tip

If you’re feeling frustrated with the virtual agents or waiting in line for a call back from a human unemployment agent, try your local Workforce Center, which are located all over the state (here’s a list). They just may have the answer you’re looking for.

Why PUA claims are up

About 200,000 freelancers, contractors and gig workers in Colorado have made a Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) claim since the federal money became available in April. And so far, $548.6 million in PUA benefits have been paid to gig workers, freelancers and other self-employed workers. But for some reason, the number of new PUA claims ticked up in August. Last week, claims doubled from the week ended Aug. 1. 

The state’s director of unemployment insurance suspects fraud. In June, thieves began targeting Colorado’s PUA programs in order to get the extra (but separate) $600 weekly check from the federal government. 

With the new Lost Wages program starting, that may be happening again, said the state’s director of insurance Jeff Fitzgerald. The unemployment office stopped allowing new claims to backdate beyond two weeks and it continues to monitor for fraud. If you think your identity was used to make a fake unemployment claim, here are tips to get that resolved.

But that means some legitimate PUA claims aren’t getting paid. That’s an issue for some folks who wrote in to complain about the hold up of getting past benefits.

Some good news for those who are stuck: You can call in to the PUA hotline at 303-536-5615. There are 150 human agents waiting to answer PUA calls in Colorado. They answer between 1,800 to 3,000 calls a day and the wait is about 10 minutes, Haavind said.

And for the record, the PUA program ends Dec. 27 in Colorado and offers up to 39 weeks of payment whether a person files for full or partial unemployment. 

Job of the week

Make that job board of the week. The Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce launched a new job board this week at denverchamber.org/jobs.

The postings are from members, but also jobs pulled from ZipRecruiter, said Jennifer Kostka Beck, a spokeswoman for the chamber. It includes apprenticeships, training opportunities and resources available from the Chamber.

“The Chamber has always focused on putting Coloradans to work, and when the pandemic hit, we knew we had an even greater responsibility to meet the needs of people who found themselves without a job, because we have the knowledge and connections to business that would help,” she said.

Resources for businesses

  • Energize Colorado starts accepting applications on Aug. 31 for its $25 million gap fund. The money is available to small businesses with fewer than 25 employees in Colorado. The bipartisan project offers up to $15,000 in grants or $20,000 in loans for a maximum of $35,000. >> DETAILS
  • For El Paso County businesses, there are grants available for nonprofits and small businesses of up to $20,000 as part of the new El Paso County Regional Business Relief Fund. >> DETAILS

I’m getting a lot of comments from readers detailing their unemployment situations. If I can step in and help, I respond. If I think questions and answers are useful for other readers, I’ll add them here. So, ask me a question about unemployment, jobs or how to find workers and we’ll see if it gets answered in next week’s column. Thanks for reading! ~tamara

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