The big unemployment news in Colorado this week was that more fraud was discovered and the state prevented up to $1 billion from being paid.
This helps explain why some folks on unemployment haven’t been paid since July. While I touched on the reasons for holds in last week’s What’s Working column, here is more insight:
- Fraud affected only people making Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) claims — gig workers, freelancers and the self-employed. Those folks are receiving unemployment benefits for the first time, thanks to the federal CARES Act.
- There were still about 6,680 PUA claims on hold as of Wednesday, according to the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment.
- If your account is still on hold, it likely triggered one of 18 fraud prevention measures. The unemployment office is going through this queue with its investigators to confirm identities and verify legitimate PUA applicants.
- If you’re one of the scammers, no one from the state is going to tell you your account is on hold because of fraud. So, please stop it.
This doesn’t resolve the issue for readers like Kevin, who emailed that lost among the fraud investigations are people who have been barely eking it out since July when fraud became widespread. “1000s of legitimate claims are stopped, called fraudulent, not paid and then ignored. There is no communication or even basic guidance provided on what we’re supposed to do to get our claim going again,” he said.
Cher Haavind, deputy director of the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment offered insight on what to expect if your claim is put on hold:
- It generates a “fact-finding” process so the person knows there’s a pending issue
- They get a “pending issue” on the account as the reason for non payment, which is listed in their payment history view.
- The fact-finding process tells them what documents are needed to resolve the issue.
- Person must respond and upload the documents.
The state won’t share a timeline for resolution (though in the past, they’ve said a call to the PUA helpline at 303-536-5615 would clear up legitimate accounts within 24 hours).
Jeff Fitzgerald, the state’s director of unemployment insurance, declined to share what the fraud prevention measures are but said there is “a certain level of scrutiny on out-of-state claims, absolutely,” though holds include claims made by people who live in the state, he said.
“The gray territory claims are the ones that are still being investigated,” he said.
Now that the latest anti-fraud tool was implemented in late August, investigators hopefully are getting through the holds more quickly.
HELP US: Did you go through a hold and get it resolved? Share what happened to enlighten other readers by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org
3 benefits: Action or no action?
The federal Lost Wages Assistance program to pay an extra $300 a week launches Sept. 17, according to state officials.
In Colorado, the only people who qualify are those who received any unemployment benefit between July 26 and Aug. 29 of at least $100 a week. That leaves 6% of jobless Coloradans ineligible. But 350,000 Coloradans can expect LWA payment for up to five weeks.
The state is also applying for a sixth week of LWA benefits, which is now the maximum available. Nearly every state has applied for a piece of the available $44 billion, which is typically reserved for disaster relief.
One tricky thing here: PUA folks don’t need to take action to get the $300 per week. But anyone on regular unemployment must certify that they’re out of work as a result of COVID-19. The unemployment office will notify folks via email or a call. Regular UI folks can then certify for benefits through the virtual agent or the call center.
UPDATE: Sept. 15: 2020: If you tried to certify for LWA today using the virtual agent on coloradoui.gov, an overwhelming number of requests (8,000 since Friday) caused an overload. System is being rebooted and updates will be posted on the state’s site. (Should be working again, as of 4:15 p.m.)
Google has been working to expand capacity of its virtual agent tool. Today’s issue will not impact anyone’s benefits payments and certifying later has no bearing on the LWA benefits, says the Department of Labor.
UPDATE Sept. 16, 2020: LWA certification using the the virtual agent has been disabled after constant technical issues. The feature will return when the state’s labor department is “confident it can meet the demand and provide a better customer experience for our claimants.” Before the feature was disabled, more than 16,000 people on unemployment were certified.
As a reminder, two other programs offering 13 weeks of federal unemployment benefits each have different protocols. They’re only available to those on regular unemployment (ie: not PUA):
- Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation (PEUC)— Users must apply for this HERE because it’s paid out of federal funds (regular unemployment benefits are provided by employers who pay for unemployment insurance). But you won’t hear about this from the unemployment office until your account hits a zero balance.
- State Extended Benefits (SEB) — Qualified folks don’t have to do anything to get SEB, which kicks in after PEUC is exhausted.
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The politics of unemployment pay
Republican Senators failed to win over Democrats on Thursday with their “skinny” $500 billion coronavirus stimulus plan. This would have provided more help to small businesses ($250 billion for another round of Paycheck Protection loans), testing and vaccines ($50 billion), schools ($100 billion) and an extra $300 to people on unemployment through Dec. 27.
But it didn’t include another round of stimulus checks, aid to state and local governments or any rent or mortgage relief. Senate Democrats said the bill just didn’t help enough.
As of Friday, there’s no progress in Washington to provide more federal relief to folks on unemployment. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is hopeful something will be passed before the Nov. 3 election, but Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said “I don’t know,” reported CNBC.
Even though this may seem like it’s out of your control, you can tell Colorado’s two U.S. Senators how they can help.
- Sen. Michael Bennet: Send a message or call 866-455-9866
- Sen. Cory Gardner: Send a message or call 303-391-5777
Job of the week
Colorado has been facing housing affordability issues and the pandemic hasn’t helped, with more than 700,000 Coloradans filing for unemployment since March even as home sales reached record prices. The number of people with no home is growing, said Cathy Alderman, with the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless. I interviewed her on a story about why the hotel industry is doing terribly.
Her organization helps folks without homes. It’s also working on a respite center, for people without a home to recover after a medical emergency.
The organization, which employs 620 people, has job openings — around 20 on any given day. There are maintenance, facilities management and other entry-level jobs, plus they need behavioral health workers and psychiatrists. Check it out: coloradocoalition.org/careers
Are you an employer searching for job candidates and think you can help? Share your story.
The Q&A: Overpayments
Q: I had exhausted my regular benefits and was told to apply for PUA, collected that, then was told I had to go back to regular unemployment. But during all this I was told to complete my weekly certification on both, so I did. But now they say I owe over $11,000 for overpaid benefits. …It just feels like someone having their foot on your head in a pool of water sometimes. ~ A frustrated beertender
A: Boy, that sucks. But don’t stop breathing! Overpayments happen all the time in the unemployment system, but the issue was exacerbated by the pandemic as the state had to manage new federal and regular state benefits. State officials estimate they’ve overpaid $35 million to $40 million so far. And there are a variety of reasons why this can happen.
Some people were overpaid because they quit their job and didn’t qualify for benefits. Or their employer successfully appealed the payment. In the case of COVID, a business may have received a federal Paycheck loan and paid the worker, who still collected unemployment benefits. Work-search violations, incorrect reporting of return to work date and availability violations are other reasons. Those situations would all be deemed overpayments.
It sounds like you were collecting regular and PUA benefits. But you’ll need to check with the state to confirm that.
“We can work with the situation for each claimant including delaying the start of a repayment plan if needed,” she said. “We need a demonstrated good faith effort by the customer, but will work with them if they do not have some benefits that can be offset or any income coming in.”
Stuck on finding answers to your job or unemployment questions? Ask me.
This week’s callback numbers
37,000: Callbacks made to folks scheduling an appointment through the virtual agent.
30%: Number of scheduled callbacks with “no shows,” which is up from 27% last week.
2%: Canceled callbacks
“We’ve been adding anywhere from about 800 slots per week to about 2,500,” said Fitzgerald. “As we add these slots, we are having staff make contact with those that are at the end of the line (late September to late October) and we’re actually moving them back up to the, to the open slots.”
Get help with your bills
I read every single email readers send unless it somehow gets buried in my inbox while I’m not looking (please add ‘What’s Working’ to the subject line to route it to my appropriate inbox). I’m hearing a lot of “nearly homeless,” and “backed up on bills.” So here’s some resources that could be helpful. And readers, if you have others, please share!
Energy Outreach Colorado — A $4.8 million program that provides financial help with utility bills during COVID. It’s a result of state bill HB-1412, passed in June. >> Details at energyoutreach.org/programs or call 1-866-432-8435
Free internet through T-Mobile — The mobile carrier is offering free internet to students to help with remote learning through its Project 10Million program. Service plus mobile hotspots are available through school districts and are free to students who qualify for the National School Lunch program. >> Details
Emergency Housing Assistance Program from Colorado’s Division of Housing was created during the pandemic to help landlords and tenants. It offers rental and mortgage assistance. >> Details
Colorado Coalition for the Homeless: Provides assistance in finding permanent housing or keeping current housing. >> Details
2-1-1 Colorado: Dial 211 on your phone to contact one of six call centers across the state that provide rent assistance to qualified applicants >> Details
Salvation Army Housing Now program: Provides short-term rental assistance
Colorado Foreclosure Hotline (877-601-HOPE) offers resources and options for mortgage holders falling behind. >> Details
Colorado Apartment Association rental assistance resource list. >> Details
Need Help Paying Bills Colorado: Offers links to more information about short-term assistance with utility bills, healthcare and housing. >> Details
Business support, opportunities
Colorado Restaurant Day is officially today (Sept. 12) and the industry is encouraging folks to dine out. There’s a variety of festivities from Steamboat Springs to northern Colorado where proceeds go to help restaurant workers (via the Colorado Restaurant Foundation).
That’s it for this week. While this report was heavy on unemployment topics, it’s evolving as a resource in the pandemic and intends to help employers, small businesses and even job seekers.
Send your tips, job questions and resources to email@example.com, don’t forget to add “What’s Working” in the subject line. And do me a favor: If you find this column helpful, share it so others can be just as informed. Anyone can sign up to get What’s Working in their inbox for FREE at coloradosun.com/getww. See you next week! ~Tamara Chuang
This story was updated on Sept. 15 and 16 to note that the state’s website was down for people trying to certify for for Lost Wages Assistance.
What’s Working is a Colorado Sun column for readers navigating pandemic employment. Read the archive and don’t miss the next one. Get this free newsletter delivered to your inbox by signing up at coloradosun.com/getww.
- What’s Working: 24,000 unemployed Coloradans must pay back pandemic jobless benefits
- What’s Working: As Colorado’s labor shortage blame game continues, most unemployed workers are actually back at work
- What’s Working: How much federal COVID relief went to unemployed Coloradans?
- What’s Working: There are more job openings than Coloradans on unemployment. Matchmaking isn’t easy.
- What’s Working: It’s a worker’s labor market in Colorado as wages rise
- What’s Working: People say they want to work from home, but they’re returning to the office in droves
- What’s Working: Officials expect Colorado to have a full GDP recovery this year
Missed a What’s Working?
- What’s Working: Thousands of fraud holds lifted for Colorado unemployed, while more face pricier health insurance
- The $300 “Lost Wages” bonus begins, Amazon is hiring like crazy and answers from Colorado’s labor department
- What’s Working: Extra $300 unemployment benefit gets a start date and how Colorado overpaid $40 million in jobless aid
- What’s Working: The situation with PUA benefits. Plus, why action is needed to get extra payments.
- What’s Working: Spanish-speaking virtual agents, extra $300 weeks approved and a new small business fund
- What’s Working: Why it takes two months to get a callback on unemployment: 25% of scheduled calls are “no shows”
- What’s Working: Unemployment benefits for a year, $300 is the new $600 and how to get that call back