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What’s Working: As exhausted Coloradans on unemployment wait for benefits, the next federal plan must pass soon to avoid delays

Plus: Tips for using identity verification, what every business needs to know about missing emails, and why Congress needs to pass the new relief plan next week.

A small group of unemployed Coloradans gather at the Colorado Department of Labor downtown to voice their complaints that they have not received their pandemic unemployment payments on Feb. 8, 2021 in Denver, Colorado. The crowd then marched down the 16th Street Mall on their way to the Colorado State Capitol. (Kathryn Scott, Special to The Colorado Sun)
  • Credibility:

Not to be a drag here, but we’re down to one month before the existing federal coronavirus relief package providing extra unemployment benefits is set to end. 

The Continued Assistance Act, passed by federal lawmakers on Dec. 27, provided 11 weeks of extended unemployment benefits plus a bonus $300 per week until March 14 (or April 5 if you hadn’t used up your CARES Act weeks). But that was seven weeks ago and some people are still unable to collect those federal benefits because the state’s system is being reprogrammed.

While a new federal plan is in the works, it’s not a done deal yet. That means there could be another lag come March. Whenever a new federal relief plan is passed, state labor departments must reprogram their computer systems to add the additional benefits and that can take weeks or sometimes months, as some have learned.

“It will take some time to reprogram the system for the next relief plan Congress gets passed,” confirmed Jessica Hudgins Smith, press secretary for the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment’s Division of Unemployment Insurance. 

The January upgrade to the modernized MyUI+ system will speed up the rollout of new extended unemployment programs. But even Smith, who’s new to the job, realizes the strain that any delay will have. 

“In a perfect world, a new relief package will be approved by the end of next week to avoid another gap in benefits.”

Jessica Hudgins Smith, Colorado Deptartment of Labor

“However, it’s imperative that Congress does not wait until the current programs expire on March 14 to pass new legislation, as it did in the past with the CARES Act. Otherwise, yes there will be a gap in benefits that is beyond the control of the state,” Smith said. “In a perfect world, a new relief package will be approved by the end of next week to avoid another gap in benefits.”

At least Colorado has started handing out the federal dollars. Last week, the state paid nearly 150,000 people approximately $145.7 million in Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation (FPUC), which is the $300 weekly payments. Another $69.8 million was paid to those with eligible weeks of pandemic employment as part of Phase 1 of the federal benefits rollout. 

By the time people in Phase 2 get paid — which is still on track to start on Feb. 22, Smith confirmed Friday — those poor folks will have gone eight weeks or more with no unemployment check. If that’s you, please check these resources that may help with rent, utility bills and other needs. 

About two dozen out-of-work Colordans waiting for federal benefits to restart protested the delay during a rally on Feb. 8, 2021 in downtown Denver. (Tamara Chuang, The Colorado Sun)

→ Earlier: Coloradans brave the cold to put a face on who’s been waiting more than six weeks for federal unemployment

Hello, newbie

I’ve noticed a new type of reader emailing me: Someone who hasn’t been on unemployment for long, is confused by all the acronyms, and is wondering why they can’t get those pandemic benefits yet. So… some shortcuts to past Sun stories plus Colorado Department of Labor links that newbies should read before they ask a question:

If you need virtual hand holding, try one of these Facebook groups for unemployed Coloradans, like this one and this one and this one.

Also, read through the What’s Working archive at coloradosun.com/tag/whats-working. It’s getting long, but you may find your answer there. If you find something helpful, share the story with your tribe. When people stop reading and sharing this column, I’ll know it’s time to retire it.

Do me a favor: My colleagues and I are working on a series of COVID-19 stories about our new economy. Are you, or were you, an essential worker? Did you lose your job or see hours drastically cut? Did your work life change because you needed to take care of your children?  We want to hear from you, especially women, whose jobs and lives have been impacted. Share your story by filling out this form: HERE. Thanks in advance!

Suffering through IDme

If you’re unemployed and don’t know what a “program integrity” hold is by now, wow. It’s been on the front page of the unemployment site for weeks.

These are fraud holds that are keeping out scammers but also preventing legitimate users from receiving benefits. The state doesn’t want to pay fraudsters — some 1 million accounts are on hold for fraud — and is making people prove they are who they say they are. 

Proving who you are has been a long, tedious process. But last month, the state stumbled on a solution that seems to be working. Users can verify their identities using a tool called IDme.

Once someone is verified, the state lifts the hold within 24 hours. But that’s only if your hold was related to an ID-verification issue. If your hold isn’t lifted after a day, check your account for other unresolved issues. You can also call the customer service line for help at 303-536-5615, but expect to wait on hold before talking to someone (if you’re lucky). 

And then there’s Will Lacey, a Colorado Springs resident who suffered through IDme and lived to tell about it. He uploaded his U.S. passport and took a selfie. But IDme rejected him because his phone number didn’t match what IDme had — even though it’s what he used for his unemployment claim.

This kept him up for hours Wednesday night. After his sixth attempt, he wondered if it had something to do with the Federal Fair Reporting Act, which must be accepted to move forward. His research into the act made him realize it’s tied to one’s credit report. So he pulled up his credit report (free every week until April, by the way), and found his phone number history.

IDme uses existing credit-report data to verify people are who they say they are. The company was hired by the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment to help verify thousands of people whose unemployment accounts are on fraud holds. (Handout)

“I went back to IDme and tried a 7th time,” Lacey said in an email. “Got to (the) phone number step and entered the first number I jotted down, hit enter and voila — confirmed!! Oh, but not so quick, Grasshopper, IDme wants to either call you or send you a text to that number to still verify it’s you. Which I could not do.” 

But IDme provided the option to call his home phone instead. That allowed him to access IDme’s “Trusted Referee” to verify his identity. 

Lacey’s advice:

  1. You need the address and phone number on file with the credit reporting agencies; a valid ID (or passport); a way to confirm your number with a call or text. 
  2. A smartphone to receive a link from IDme, and a computer with a camera to upload or take pictures of documents required.
  3. If a trusted referee must get involved, a user needs a smartphone or computer with a microphone and camera. (Users can also make an appointment at their local Colorado Workforce Center to get help with IDme.)
  4. The Trusted Referee requires two forms of ID.

“Another help is IDme support. It is 24/7, so if someone needs to get through to them and is having trouble because of high volume (aka inadequate staffing), they could do like I did, and stay up to 3 a.m.,” he said.

Missing emails? Tips for any business

As Phase 2 prepares to welcome back thousands of people who’ve exhausted their federal benefits, this group needs to watch for an email from the Department of Labor. 

During Phase 1, we learned that the state emailed 230,000 eligible people on Jan. 28. A day later, only 41% of recipients had opened the email. What happened?

Several readers said they found it in their spam folder. One reader said the message was sent to an email she used in 2013 for unemployment. And several others said they received the message days later, after Phase 1 reopened.

To find out what happens after the Department of Labor hits “Send,” I asked Validity, a company that helps customers improve email deliverability. (They also acquired a company built for this — ReturnPath, which has Colorado operations — back in 2019.)

“When we talk about email deliverability, it comes down to something that we call sender reputation,” said Tom Bartel, Validity’s senior vice president of data. 

A sender’s reputation is a score from 1 to 100 based on whether emails are opened, marked as spam or bounce. It looks at how the email was technically configured, the reputation of the sending service, and a number of other factors. The higher the score, the better deliverability. Email providers like Gmail or Yahoo also create their own whitelists and blacklists — or use a list from a third party like Validity — to prevent spam from reaching users. But there are problems outside a sender’s control that can also affect their score.

“The unemployment office might be doing everything perfectly, except that maybe phishers and spammers in the last couple weeks have decided to gear up a bunch of faux unemployment claims and phishing messages,” Bartel said. “These detection systems are going to more easily get confused or just be more susceptible and have a lower tolerance for real messages.”

Bartel took a look at the email from the Department of Labor and concluded that, generally, the agency was using email services Mailchimp and Sendgrid, which had scores at 90 to 99. He couldn’t offer more insight without digging deeper into the data. 

But a 41% open rate a day later is actually pretty good, he said. That open signal is typically based on a small image showing up in an opened email. If recipients block images or the email service caches the image to reduce bandwidth, the sender won’t get the alert that the email was opened. 

“That 41% is almost certainly much lower than what actually occurred,” Bartel said. 

The best thing users can do is mark emails from the labor department or other important companies as safe senders and not spam. Meanwhile, businesses can plug in their IP address and information to Validity’s senderscore.org site to check their own reputation.

The return of SEB?

For all those who experienced the ups and downs of State Extended Benefits (you don’t want to know), the benefits are not back yet. But the Department of Labor hasn’t forgotten about everyone who lost them on Nov. 28 and never applied for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA), as was recommended. The state is working on a way to retroactively pay those still eligible when Phase 2 begins. 

“We are going to have an allowability in our programming to make sure that those people can collect those four weeks out of PUA,” said Daniel Chase, the Department of Labor’s Chief of Staff. “That is something we have to do to make sure that we are covering all weeks for these individuals.”

SEB was for people who’d used up all their regular state benefits and all of their pandemic benefits. The SEB program provided an extra 13 weeks of payments, but it ended early because the state’s unemployment rate sank below 5%. Those on SEB were told they could apply for PUA, but not everyone did. 

However, once Phase 2 starts, SEB users will not only receive an extra 11 weeks of unemployment, but the state will program its system to allow those SEBers to retroactively claim PUA benefits missing from Nov. 29 to Dec. 26. 

Intel from the unemployment office

Behind the scenes, a lot was happening this past week. For one, I heard from Erin Joy Swank, one of the moderators of the volunteer-run Facebook group for the unemployed. She met with Chase and Joe Barela, the executive director of the Department of Labor. They reached out to her! 

“Long overdue, but several things they were quite surprised about. They really seemed to listen and brainstorm together,” Swank said in an email. 

Her update is posted in the Facebook group

More labor department fixes, according to Smith: 

  • Incorrect balances for about 100 people on Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation (PEUC) were fixed.
  • Incorrect overpayments that reappeared for about 300 claimants were removed.
  • Claims stuck in “submitted” status were fixed for about 100 claimants.

And remember that confusing question on PUA eligibility that disqualified many PUA users last week? The state is still working to remedy the situation and allow people to get paid. Those affected will be sent instructions when the fix is ready.

Colorado Department of Labor and Employment discovered that many on Pandemic Unemployment Assistance were confused by an eligibility question that ended up disqualifying eligible applicants. (Tamara Chuang, The Colorado Sun)

But for those on PEUC who are temporarily on PUA until Phase 2 kicks in, this series of eligibility questions may not apply. So what does one do? Smith said you must answer honestly. And if none apply, you don’t qualify for PUA. However, when the extra 11 weeks of PEUC is re-added in Phase 2, affected users will be able to claim earlier weeks through Dec. 27 that they were denied.

“We ask that claimants respond to each question honestly and with the most applicable responses. If none of the above responses apply, then they technically do not qualify for PUA and will need to select the last option. It will deny them for the week, but once we get into Phase 2, they will automatically be placed on the extension of PEUC, and we will nullify those disqualifications to pay out those weeks,” Smith said.


People ask me questions that are very specific to their personal claim. But often, the answers are already out there, either in my past stories or the Department of Labor’s website. I get it. There’s so much information and you just want a quick answer and a personal response. It made me think that what the labor agency really needs is a better virtual agent who devours local news reports and can handhold users through the process of reading intel from multiple sources. Any volunteers who can design that?

If you do email me with a question, tell me as much as you can about your actual case: What type of pandemic unemployment are you on? Do you have a denial, hold or ineligible status? How long have you been unemployed? This helps me cut down on the back and forth. Email me at tamara@coloradosun.com to share your story.

Thanks to everyone who reads and shares this column regularly. Don’t forget to sign up for the email list so you don’t miss the next one: coloradosun.com/getww. See you next week! ~tamara

This story was updated Feb. 13, 2021 with additional unemployment tips, including how PEUC users should address the PUA eligibility question.


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.

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