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$300 unemployment bonus runs into technical snags in Colorado after people overwhelm request system

The Colorado Department of Labor and Employment disabled its online certification system for the Lost Wages Assistance, created by President Donald Trump, and will notify eligible users when it’s ready again

Cristos Coffee barista Sophia Athanasoulis, 16, prepares a beverage for a customer on May 1, 2020. She's one of a dozen workers at the shop, located on the Weld County side of Erie, Colorado. Co-owner Grace Hardy said she was able to keep all of her workers on the job during the coronavirus shutdown. (Dana Coffield, The Colorado Sun)
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A federal program expected to launch Thursday to provide some unemployed Coloradans an extra $300 a week in jobless benefits was flooded with so many requests that the state labor department was forced to disable the certification process late Wednesday.

The hiccup should not prevent eligible users from getting the federal Lost Wages Assistance benefits, state officials said, but so far only 16,000 out of 220,000 eligible users have been certified to receive the aid. The Colorado Department of Labor and Employment will be in touch with folks who still need to certify, said Cher Haavind, the department’s deputy director.

“We will be emailing all claimants today with an update and will send additional communications once the technical issues are resolved,” she wrote in an email. “These technical difficulties will not impact claimants’ ability to receive these benefits.”

The $44 billion program, funded by the Federal Emergency Management Agency under an executive order from President Donald Trump, was set to start Thursday in Colorado. People who received at least $100 of weekly benefits between July 26 and Sept. 5 are eligible for the bonus of up to $1,800 total for six weeks worth of benefits.

But the added step to qualify meant that people on regular unemployment needed to certify that they are still unemployed due to the coronavirus pandemic. The state allowed users to quickly certify using the online virtual agent, a chat box developed by Google to offload customer support away from the human-powered unemployment call centers. 

Coloradans who are gig workers and eligible for benefits under the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program don’t need to certify.

UPDATE, Sept. 17: As of 11:45 a.m., the Department of Labor says it’s virtual assistant is back and able to help with Lost Wages Assistance certification. Just type in “Lost Wages” into the chat box at coloradoui.gov.

MORE: Extra $300 unemployment benefit gets a start date and how Colorado overpaid $40 million in jobless aid

On Monday, the labor agency notified 220,000 eligible users that certification had begun and they could apply through the virtual agents. The immediate response overwhelmed the virtual agent system, and users experienced timeouts while typing in personal information. 

“I tried the virtual assistant in Chrome, Safari, on mobile and called several times. Each time, it stalls out at the (Social Security Number) and PIN verification step,” applicant Tashia Davis emailed The Colorado Sun on Tuesday.

Developers are working on expanding capacity for the virtual agents but until then, LWA certification has been disabled “until we are confident it can meet the demand and provide a better customer experience for our claimants,” Haavind said.

More than 700,000 Coloradans have filed for unemployment benefits since March, when the pandemic began restricting business operations. As of Aug. 31, approximately 243,028 Coloradans were still receiving unemployment benefits.

This story was updated on Sept. 17, 2020 to share the status of the disabled feature.

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