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Unemployed and nearly homeless, jobless Coloradans whose benefits are on hold are crying for help

Those stuck in Colorado's overwhelmed unemployment system are struggling with basic survival

Clark Family Orchards in Palisade operates a fruit stand during the summer months through which they sell a variety of homegrown produce and fruit that they've raised on their 120-acre farm. Dennis Clark said that, after this week's devastating frost, there may not be enough peaches to sell to grocery stores but that he hopes there are enough for their fruit stand. Clark Family Orchards normally produces more than one million pounds of peaches each year, he said. (Gretel Daugherty, Special to The Colorado Sun)
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Jennifer Milton is one of the 7,800 Coloradans wondering what happened to her weekly unemployment check. She hasn’t received a penny since July 21.

The thing is, she just can’t seem to get an answer. There’s no evidence that her account was flagged as fraudulent and caught in the ongoing investigation by state and federal agents to stop claims based on stolen IDs. Milton, who shared her documents with The Colorado Sun, admits that she made mistakes filling out her forms but has fixed them. In March, she lost her dream job in sales at a CBD startup. She was sleeping in her car until a friend in Westminster let her crash at his place.

“All my belongings were packed in my car and I had no place to put my stuff when my car was broken into and all my clothes were taken. Everything important to me, just gone overnight (including) a very valuable postage stamp collection,” Milton said. “I’ve called unemployment every week with no results at all. … This whole thing is quite frustrating.”

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There are countless Coloradans caught up in an unemployment system that was overwhelmed by the coronavirus pandemic. While more than 700,000 people have filed for unemployment since mid-March, at least 245,078 were still collecting unemployment as of Sept. 5. The fraud investigations kicked out more than 100,000 claims, but as of Friday, at least 7,800 were still on hold and waiting. 

The situation has become dire for many who are struggling to find work and pay rent while also trying to figure out why their unemployment claim is still on hold. In an email, Stuart Hamp said he sent numerous copies of his driver’s license to get his identity verified, but there’s been no change in his claim and he’s received no benefits since filing June 7. 

“Since then I have lost my car and become homeless due to not being able to keep up with payments for either of them,” he wrote. “Yesterday I couldn’t even buy water and almost died after having a seizure that I believe was due to not enough sleep from being homeless and lack of water.”

Charitable organizations, like Catholic Charities, have been busy trying to help those in need with food, gas, gift cards and rent. Catholic Charities has provided about $300,000 in recent months to help clients pay rent or utility bills, said Amy Eurek, the agency’s emergency assistance and disaster relief manager. Many of the recipients have been unable to get their unemployment benefits for weeks or months. And they can’t help speed up the unemployment process.

“We’re ready to help them apply for unemployment or food stamps or things like that. But they’ve already applied. It’s the backlog,” Eurek said. “It’s like, ‘You could help me with rent, but I really just need my checks. I just need my income to come in until I can secure another job.’”

One change releases 6,000 holds

The Colorado Department of Labor and Employment has been playing catch up since mid-March when safety measures went into effect and thousands lost their jobs. 

But as scammers began using stolen IDs to file for unemployment benefits as early as June, the state added a series of fraud measures and placed holds on thousands of accounts. If an account triggered any one of 18 anti-fraud measures, the state attached a “Program Integrity” hold. The department has acknowledged that some people got stuck in the system and there was very little, if any, communication. 

“For obvious reasons, we don’t want to let criminals know they have been flagged because we want to ensure the integrity of our investigation,” said Cher Haavind, deputy director of the labor department. 

On Monday, the agency said after careful consideration of the most common reason folks are on integrity holds, it relaxed one measure, though they declined to share specifics to prevent criminals from taking advantage of the change. That lifted the hold for 6,000 cases, which when analyzed again, were deemed legitimate and recipients saw the change late last week.

However, there are still about 7,800 cases still on hold because they have violated one or more of the 18 fraud measures, said Jeff Fitzgerald, the state’s director of unemployment insurance.

Fitzgerald said many of those 7,800 claimants have been contacted and asked to provide additional information to verify their identity. More than 5,000 have not done so, he added The rest are in a queue waiting to be reviewed by an investigator. 

“A significant number have taken no further action meaning it is very, very likely that these are fraud claims where we’ve asked them for more information and they’ve abandoned the claim,” he said.

Get help now: Call 2-1-1, more

For those struggling with not having money to pay for basic necessities, there is help available. Aid organizations statewide responded to a record number of requests for food, rental assistance and even diapers in the early months of the pandemic. Requests for help are ramping up again, said Sue Conry, care director for the Hilltop Family Resource Center in Grand Junction.

“What we’re seeing is that the need has started to increase again,” Conry said. “I would say the loss of the $600 additional COVID dollars for unemployment (on July 25) has increased individuals’ needs for food and for housing or both. I believe that’s why we’re seeing the increase at this time.”

Hilltop also supports 2-1-1 Colorado, a statewide service connecting callers to more than 8,000 resources from health care and housing to legal advice and job services. Before the pandemic, a large chunk of the calls to 2-1-1 were older adults asking about health care. As the pandemic began, food requests jumped to the top. Now, housing and funding dominate calls.

“(About) 90% of the requests that we get and that we give out are for housing,” Conry said. “People are going to be homeless if we don’t help them pay their rent.”

Hilltop Family Resource Center in Grand Junction helps people with rent assistance and other needs. (Handout)

Calls to get help with housing on the Western Slope have increased 40% in the past three months, she said. Hilltop alone has handed out $26,000 in that period to help people with rent payments to avoid eviction or pay for emergency housing at a local hotel.

Stephanie Sanchez, the statewide director of 2-1-1 Colorado over at Mile High United Way, said the types of calls are similar no matter what county you’re in. 

“What we see at Mile High’s 2-1-1, that’s what we see at all centers. It’s the same story,” Sanchez said. “We know that a lot of people were impacted by unemployment and so just meeting basic needs has increased. I would say from March to August, if you look at that comparison compared to last year, we’re about 155% higher. For the metro Denver area, our average last year was maybe 330-350 calls a day. Our highest day (during the pandemic) was about 2,000.”

The 2-1-1 operators are trained to do more than just answer questions. For example, if someone calls in asking about food banks for food assistance, the operator will point out the food pantries and soup kitchens, but also get them connected to federal benefits like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. If someone calls in about rent, the operator may suggest where to find help with paying electric and gas bills too. 

“They can also talk about other things that might be available to help you shift the dollars around,” Sanchez added. “Food is an easy one. If we can help you get food in your house, you can use your food dollars to pay for something else.”

Elizabeth from the 2-1-1 Help Center takes calls from her home. Coloradans can call 2-1-1 to get connected to resources for housing assistance, food, utility bills and other basic needs. (Provided by Mile High United Way)

Gabriel House Project, run by Catholic Charities, has been a recipient of many of those 2-1-1 calls. The organization has 13 locations statewide that focus on helping expectant mothers and families with young children. They provide rent assistance but also diapers, baby wipes, formula and food and clothing.

“Back in March or April, a lot of families were coming to us and saying they had never needed assistance previously but they have been laid off from their jobs,” Gabriel House Project Director Kalynn Webster said.  “Most of our families are not homeless, although we did do a lot more rental assistance referrals than we usually do. We’re kind of providing them some of the things to hopefully prevent homelessness.”

In its fiscal year, which ended June 30, Gabriel House gave away 489,000 diapers, 30% more than the previous year. This year, she’s hoping to donate 500,000, and the organization is accepting financial donations for its Bottom Line Diaper Drive.

“A lot of our families come consistently either because they’re having more kids or because  they just have other needs and getting the diapers help them provide for those other things,” Webster said.

Other reasons for holds

Over the summer, officials at Denver Workforce Services realized they could help unemployed workers who suddenly stopped receiving payments. When the pandemic started, the state made everyone “job attached,” which waived job-search requirements for 16 weeks. When the grace period ended for many in July, people needed to register with their local Workforce center and apply for at least five jobs per week.

“People were unaware of this fact and after getting this letter and having to call us, they were already behind or held up one or two weeks,” said Tony Anderson, director of Workforce services in Denver. The center has its own hotline at 720-337-WORK (9675), which is answered by a human during regular business hours.

“We have folks answering calls within minutes so it’s not us holding up any payments,” Anderson said. “In my opinion, the greatest value we can have (is to) make sure our systems are not holding up their payments and then we can start getting people back to work.”

There are other reasons an account can be placed on hold so no payments are made. It could still be fraud, though unrelated to the current identity-theft situation. Failing to report other compensation, or a side gig while collecting benefits could be tagged as fraud (and could lead to an overpayment that the state will try to collect back).

If an applicant failed the Experian ID Check, opted not to take the ID verification check, or there was an issue with their DMV crossmatch, their case would be put on hold.

Holds could be due to missing documents, past employment dates are incorrect, an applicant forgot to sign or date a document, or there’s an incorrect birth date. In some cases, a former employer may be challenging the amount of the claim.

Keep track of Colorado’s job and unemployment and get What’s Working, a free newsletter at coloradosun.com/getww

There’s also the possibility the person isn’t actually eligible for benefits, so the claim was flagged for a further look. 

Most of these things are considered issues and are different from the 7,800 cases on integrity holds, which were triggered by violating one of the 18 fraud-prevention measures. 

Folks with integrity holds can call in to the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance hotline at 303-536-5615 and tell the agent the account has an integrity hold. They will have the opportunity to validate their identity and then be placed in the queue for an investigator to analyze further.

The state state plans to launch a new spot on its website to allow legitimate users to upload the needed documents for ID verification in order to lift those integrity holds. 

“That agent will flag that as they’ve been told and put it into the queue,” Haavind said. “And we have multiple teams working that queue. We just set up a new team, even in the last week to start working these outside of (the) investigations (team).”

The changes likely helped one man who asked not to be named. Cut off from unemployment benefits in July,  he said he was rejected from signing a lease for an apartment. He’s been sleeping on the floor at his grandmother’s apartment for weeks. He had a “program integrity’ issue on his account but could not figure out what the agency needed.

After calling the hotline multiple times a day, he finally got through on Sept. 1 and the representative said she didn’t see why he wasn’t receiving any benefits. She submitted a ticket to escalate his case for further review. He continued to check his status — still on hold for days — and reached an agent again about 10 days later. This agent told him she couldn’t find the earlier ticket. He could submit a new one and restart the process, or wait. He decided to wait.

Ten days later, on Friday, he finally heard back in a big way.

“Just wanted to let you know I was cleared today,” he emailed. “I didn’t receive any info (call or email) about it but I received a direct deposit and checked my (unemployment) account and the payment hold has been removed.”

Get help with your bills

  • Energy Outreach Colorado — A $4.8 million program that provides financial help with utility bills during COVID. >> Details , or call 1-866-432-8435
  • 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
  • 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
  • Gabriel House Project: Helps families with baby needs like diapers. >> Details (or donate)
  • Catholic Charities: Offers charitable aid for housing, healthcare and a variety of needs. >> Details
  • Hilltop Family Resource Center: Provides aid with housing and other needs to folks in Grand Junction and Montrose areas. >> Details

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