An increasing number of readers are asking for help in figuring out Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, or PUA, which pays benefits to freelancers, gig workers and self-employed folks who can’t get work due to coronavirus devastation.
But one of the more common questions is “I haven’t been paid since July. Why is there a hold on my benefits?”
While every case is probably unique, the state Department of Labor and Employment offered some perspective that boils down to one thing: fraud. And it’s still bad.
“Even fraudsters that are being held up (on claims) are brazen enough to actually call us and try to convince us that they are legitimate claims,” said Jeff Fitzgerald, the Department of Labor’s unemployment insurance director. “And they are ultimately deemed to be still fraudulent claims.”
PUA holds and fraud
If you haven’t been following along, fraudsters have been using stolen IDs to file for PUA benefits for months. It became public in late June, when Colorado’s unemployment office said 5,600 claims were deemed fraudulent. Half of the payments were stopped, preventing $34 million people from being paid. The state is trying to recover the other payments. More have been discovered since.
If you’re a victim — either your employer asked why you filed for unemployment or you received an unemployment bank card in the mail — tell the bank and fill out this form to notify the Department of Labor.
The unemployment office immediately clamped down in June, preventing new PUA users from backdating claims beyond two weeks (anyone could backdate to February to claim the other federal unemployment benefit of $600 a week). Fitzgerald acknowledged that some legitimate users would get caught up in the mess. They must call to get it straightened out (here’s the PUA help line: 303-536-5615).
But for those who’ve called in, patiently waited and have not received any updates for weeks or months, here’s what else could be happening.
- The claim is on hold because it triggered one of 18 fraud prevention mechanisms.
- The person failed to pass the Experian check to verify a user’s identity
- There was an issue with cross-matching a user’s identity with data from the Department of Motor Vehicles.
- The claim must be verified by state investigators, who are still working through a backlog of claims.
“Keep in mind, anything we tell legitimate claimants we are telling criminals, too,” added Cher Haavind, the deputy director of the Department of Labor. “As Jeff said, the criminals are getting so bold that they also are calling in on the fraud holds.”
Some good news for Colorado: The U.S. Department of Labor announced that there is $100 million available to states to fight fraud. Colorado is eligible for $2.4 million of it and the state is applying.
PUA is like the neglected stepchild of unemployment. Most people who qualify wouldn’t receive a cent from the state when the economy goes sour. That’s because gig workers don’t usually pay for unemployment insurance, which funds the state’s Unemployment Trust Fund and in turn, pays out regular unemployment benefits. The federal CARES Act took care of unemployed gig workers for the first time, starting in April.
PUA benefits are similar to regular benefits. The amount is based on past income and lasts for 39 weeks, whether the person had no income or partial income. The last payable week for PUA is the week ending Dec. 26. Since March 29, the state has paid out $568.4 million in PUA benefits. And the state has received about 80,000 people continue to receive PUA benefits each week.
Several months into the pandemic, new PUA claims are up, rising each week in August. But the latest figure is MIA. The state didn’t share the weekly number this week because it needs more time to reconcile fraud activity, Haavind said.
But PUA-ites who exhaust their benefits are not eligible for extended federal benefits, such as the Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation or the State Extended Benefits, both of which are federally funded and extend regular unemployment benefits an extra 13 weeks each.
Extended benefits require action
The other two unemployment benefits — both paid from federal money — are causing some confusion. Reader Jay Lindley asked about the contradicting information about the state’s advice that those on unemployment don’t have to do anything to receive them.
The confusion is due to one requiring action, while the other doesn’t.
So, let’s review:
- Pandemic Unemployment Emergency Compensation — When someone on regular unemployment exhausts their regular benefits, PEUC kicks in for 13 more weeks. Users must apply for this HERE. But you won’t hear about it from the unemployment office until your account hits a zero balance.
- State Extended Benefits — After exhausting PEUC, folks eligible for regular unemployment then move to SEB. This is where qualified folks don’t have to do anything. SEB extends regular benefits for an additional 13 weeks.
“We are not allowed to add PEUC to the claim,” Angela Pfannenstiel, with the state’s Unemployment Insurance Policy division, wrote in an email. “It is only for SEB that we are allowed to add (to user accounts) after we evaluate the requirements of SEB.”
More benefits are on the way. The state expects to begin paying the $300 weekly Lost Wages Assistance in mid September. LWA was set into motion by President Donald Trump and it started with three weeks of benefits. The state has now applied for a fourth week so folks getting at least $100 a week of unemployment between July 26 to Aug. 22 are eligible.
Still an issue: call backs
I’ve received some emails from folks on unemployment demanding that I get them a callback with the state’s unemployment office. Well, just one really demanding email. The others were much more polite.
This is STILL an ongoing issue, probably because there are more than 200,000 Coloradans on unemployment, with 5,837 filing for the first time last week (the lowest number of new claims since mid March, by the way).
You should schedule a callback even if you get a date in late October, which I’m told is the next opening. But here’s what else is new with callbacks:
- Next week, the labor department will start reaching out to folks at the end of the line (i.e., late-October appointments) to move them “closer to the present,” Haavind said.
- In the past week, the department contacted 26% of people waiting for an October call to let them know about resetting PINs online, backdate a claim, filing a claim and other things can be done online. The virtual agent on the state’s unemployment site now responds to users typing in “claim status,” “reset PIN” or “cancel callback.” More tips HERE.
- Thanks to the hiring of additional call center staff, more October slots have opened up. That’s 6,800 more openings between Oct. 6 and 23.
- People are still not showing up for their scheduled call — 27% are no shows. That translates to about 280 appointments a day. “We also call twice, just FYI,” Haavind said. So if you’re reading this column and get your question answered, be nice and cancel through the virtual agent at coloradoui.gov.
Reader tip: PUA vs regular UI
Another tripping point for a lot of PUA users has been the need for some of them to first file for regular benefits, get rejected and then file for PUA. Remember reader JB, who was missing July payments and couldn’t get a call back until October? His issue has been resolved because he was able to talk to someone, he said.
“Honestly, after the delay in being moved from regular UI, to the PUA system, then back to the regular UI system is where my problems getting paid happened,” JB wrote.
And his tip to getting an earlier call back? A tip I posted here last week: The only way to make multiple appointments is to use different phone numbers (because to check for an earlier date, you must cancel your existing one). But if you do snag an earlier time, please cancel the older one.
Have a job or unemployment tip that would help other readers? Email Tamara!
Job resource of the week
Did you know there are workforce centers all over Colorado offering free help and training to folks looking for a job or companies trying to hire people? (Here’s a map of them.) And did you know there’s a National Workforce Development Month?
Well, September is that month. You’ll have to pull up every center to see what special events are planned, but here’s one for employers: The Pikes Peak Workforce Center is offering $108,000 in training grants to businesses in El Paso and Teller counties.
Last year, 12 out of the 16 businesses that applied received a grant. And most of them ask for $12,000 to $20,000, said Becca Tonn, the center’s spokeswoman. If you’re interested, apply at ppwfc.org/grants-for-worker-training.
Thanks for tuning into another What’s Working. If you have a question about unemployment, jobs or working in Colorado, just ask at email@example.com. Have a good Labor Day and if you like this column, share it with someone who can use it! ~Tamara Chuang