Cherie Ripley made the drive from Colorado Springs Monday morning to Denver to tell the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment how it feels to be left out of federal unemployment benefits that she thought she’d be receiving by now.
Two dozen other out-of-work Coloradans who’d heard her plea on a Facebook group joined her outside the labor office.
“I’m tired of seeing people suffer,” said Ripley, who got her last benefit check at the end of November when one federal program abruptly ended. “We have people here that are homeless because of this. Just tired of seeing stories of people losing their house and their car and their families and ultimately, losing their lives.”
The group of peaceful and masked protesters had a chilly reception, not only temperature-wise but building security guards who asked protesters to stay outside the perimeter of the open courtyard. No one from the Department of Labor came out to talk to the group.
It was a small showing compared to the 170 people in the same Facebook group who’d shown interest in attending the rally. But the sentiment was echoed throughout Colorado’s virtual unemployment community as others online bemoaned the long wait, started petitions and sought help contacting lawmakers.
The extra 11 weeks of unemployment benefits, made possible by the Continued Assistance Act signed by then President Donald Trump on Dec. 27, has not yet begun in Colorado. Thousands of people are still unable to access the new benefits. And many blamed the Department of Labor and Gov. Jared Polis.
“Polis has ignored us. Polis has acted as though we don’t exist,” said Brittany, who also drove up from Colorado Springs and asked that her last name not be used. “He won’t return calls, he won’t return emails. The one person from his office who did call me back said, ‘We don’t know anything more than you know.’ Yeah, I don’t buy that.”
A spokesman from Polis’ office said the Governor understands that the challenges faced by hardworking people and small businesses is no fault of their own. And as a new federal relief plan took months to come to fruition, his office partnered with the state legislature to provide $375 in direct cash payments to unemployed Coloradans.
“The Governor remains in close contact with CDLE, and the agency will ensure that the new benefits provided for in the federal Continuing Assistance Act are implemented as effectively as possible,” said Conor Cahill, press secretary for the Governor’s office. “These programs require complex programming to take into account hundreds of thousands of claimants, all with their own unique issues. Phase 2 will begin on 2/22.”
Cahill added that every new federal relief plan requires changes to the program, and the state of Colorado must wait for additional federal guidance. And then it takes time to reprogram the system in order to get money out to people and we know they don’t have that kind of time.
“The State has expressed its dissatisfaction with the federal government about this problem and it is our priority to get this benefit out as quickly as possible to all eligible Coloradans. Without the upgrades made by CDLE, people would not be receiving benefits for many more weeks but we know there is more work that can be done to help Colorado bounce back stronger than before,” he said.
The Department of Labor has explained why the process has taken so long. The agency spent a week completing a computer upgrade to the new MyUI+ program to better handle the massive demand. At the same time, it spent two weeks waiting for guidance from the U.S. Department of Labor on how to reprogram its computers to distribute the federal benefits. Since around Jan. 10, the agency has relied on its software vendor Deloitte to program all the nuances of federal unemployment.
Last week, 230,000 people on pandemic unemployment were allowed to reopen their claims and request a payment — their first since Dec. 26, when the CARES Act ended. But this group of people had pandemic benefits leftover from last year.
Ripley and her fellow protesters used up their benefits last year and are now awaiting the start of Phase 2. The Department of Labor said Sunday that Phase 2 would start rolling out on Feb. 22.
“Unemployment is sitting on millions if not billions of dollars that they could have sent out several $300 payments,” Ripley said, referring to the weekly federal bonus available to anyone receiving at least $1 a week from unemployment.
Department of Labor officials said the state government can’t work that way.
“We are not sitting on millions or billions. We withdraw from the federal account daily the exact amount of benefits we pay daily, minus any premiums we receive,” department officials said.
The state can only pay people the $300 if they certify they’re eligible each week. The state knows that thousands can’t certify for the past several weeks because the system hasn’t been programmed completely yet.
Even with programmers spending three weeks updating the computer system, the first phase was not without problems. Some people saw the return of overpayments that were forgiven last year, others saw payment holds and denials — without any explanation given.
“When MyUI+ came out (on Feb. 1), I went through and did everything I needed to do. And I was promptly told my weeks were denied. Why? Why were my weeks denied? They don’t give you any reason,” said Alan Goodell, a Littleton resident who’s on Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation, fears losing his house and is unable to pay bills. “I can’t call anybody to find out why. I can’t have an interview. I can’t appeal because there’s no tab for an appeal. It’s just, ‘Sorry, you’re in the dirt.’”
The state labor agency said last week that the software vendor was responsive and was able to resolve some issues immediately. Some of the issues weren’t evident during testing but emerged when hundreds of thousands of users reopened their accounts. On Saturday, issues resolved included erroneous overpayments, missing payments for those stuck on submitted status, a self-employment issue that was holding up payment and the reopen link that was redirecting to a staff login page.
Even so, there are still several unaddressed issues. Several people have emailed The Sun about being unable to request a payment for the week after Christmas, which is the first week of the new relief plan.
Others are still just plain stuck.
Sylvia Luevano, from Federal Heights, was furloughed since July but has been stuck in limbo on regular unemployment. She believes she should be on Pandemic Unemployment Assistance because she must stay home to take care of her two grandchildren who are in remote learning.
“They didn’t give me an exact reason why I can’t get anymore payments, but they still have me as active,” said Luevano, who said she’s been trying to get help for more than six months. “Now that the new system is up, I can’t even get into my profile. I’ve been waiting to talk to somebody and my next appointment is next month.”
Department of Labor is hiring
The labor department acknowledges that its call center has been overwhelmed, especially last week when the first federal benefits began. The state is adding another 100 agents to the call center and will soon have about 550 answering calls.
On Monday, the labor agency launched the Reemploy Colorado campaign to help out-of-work residents find a new job. By law, unemployment recipients must continue to look for work to remain eligible for benefits. Joe Barela, the Department of Labor’s executive director, said the state’s COVID-19 dial shows businesses are reopening so there are more jobs available, including about 76,000 in the state’s database at ConnectingColorado.com.
This story was updated on Feb. 9, 2021 with comments from the Governor’s Office.