By the time this column publishes on Saturday, we’ll know whether Colorado’s unemployment system was programmed properly to start paying people who’ve been without a benefit check since 2020.
The system, which the state took offline Friday evening, was scheduled to return at 3 a.m. I’m sure that more than a handful of the 289,000 people notified about the relaunch this week were up by 2:59 a.m. anxiously refreshing their screens.
We are now in Phase 2 of the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment’s rollout of federal benefits. This adds 11 additional weeks to everyone’s pandemic unemployment account. An earlier phase began paying $300 a week on Feb. 1 to those already collecting unemployment benefits.
Some quick tips for those getting back into the system this weekend:
- Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) users should see “Apply for Standard UI Benefits.” Do it. Federal rules require PUA users to first use all benefits from Colorado or other states. If you’re deemed ineligible, the “reopen” button should show up 24 hours later. On a computer, the reopen link will be on the left. On a smartphone, find it in the “hamburger” menu (the three horizontal lines).
- Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation (PEUC) users are already on standard benefits so the reopen link should reappear as soon as Saturday.
- You may not be able to request a payment immediately on Saturday. CDLE is still working on it for Saturday and hopes certifying for the week and requesting a payment will be ready by Sunday.
- The ability to certify for all eligible weeks back to Dec. 27 should show up this weekend after one’s account is reopened.
- For every week between Dec. 27 and March 14 that one was eligible for at least $1 of unemployment pay, the state will add an extra $300 as part of the Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation program. No extra effort required.
- Check the state’s unemployment website for any last-minute updates and alerts: coloradoui.gov
- The Saturday launch means the unemployment customer support lines will be open between 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. this weekend and until 6 p.m. on Monday and Tuesday. The number is 303-536-5615. Good luck getting through. Remember, nearly 300,000 people may be trying to get into the system this weekend and there are only about 600 agents.
UPDATE: By the end of Day 1, CDLE reported that 30,000 claims were reopened, more than 28,000 people certified for 121,771 weeks of benefits. By the end of the second day, the labor office said it paid more than $83 million to 85,000 people on Saturday and Sunday (updated Feb. 22, 2021).
Fixes in Phase 1
Three weeks after Phase 1 began, I’m still hearing from people stuck without their payments.
Kevin Saunders, who reopened his account on Feb. 1, was denied five weeks of past payments the next day because he answered a question wrong.
So let me go over what’s been fixed for Phase 2 and what to watch out for.
ISSUE #1: That question. This only affects PUA users who must confirm they’re eligible for pandemic benefits. After people like Saunders inadvertently disqualified themselves by saying they’re not unemployed due to COVID, the state added a warning in parenthesis and put the disqualifying statement at the bottom of the series of questions. I made it clearer:
State officials have been telling me for the past three weeks that they are working to reverse the denials. The latest? Saunders and others who were temporarily in PUA will return to PEUC in Phase 2 and “will get these disqualifications nullified with the Phase 2 rollout because it does not apply to PEUC eligibility,” said Jessica Hudgins Smith, press secretary for CDLE’s Division of Unemployment Insurance.
Smith added that these claimants got an email this week about it. But, she said, “it might take a fews days to show a claimant’s disqualification is nullified, but the week should still pay out. If the week does not get paid out after filing for/reopening PEUC, then the claimant will need to file an appeal.”
Saunders, meanwhile, said he didn’t get an email yet and the denials still exist as of Friday. We’ll continue to check in on him next week.
ISSUE #2: Overpayments. Last year, $1.4 million overpaid to some people PUA was forgiven. The decision was based on the confusingly-worded PUA application, which has been revised. While some in Phase 1 noticed the demand for repayment had returned, those cases should be resolved by now.
It’s the new overpayments — and old PUA cases that were never forgiven — that are of concern.
Unfortunately, some of those will not be forgiven, Smith said. If the user misreported their earnings, didn’t complete a valid work search or collected money from both regular unemployment and PUA, the overpayments won’t be forgiven.
But if you do end up with an overpayment, CDLE will notify you, plus it’ll show up in your MyUI+ account under “Issues and Determinations.”
Your options? Appeal.
“After our team takes a deeper look at each individual case, a decision is made whether or not the overpayment can be waived. If it is determined the overpayment is accurate, we will provide repayment options including collection through future benefit offsets, negotiated repayment plans and tax return interceptions,” Smith said.
Fax a written appeal to the state’s Appeals Unit at 303-318-9248 or call 303-318-9299 (800-405-2338 toll free) to discuss appeals procedures once the appeal has been submitted. Don’t forget to note what the issue is that you’re appealing. More at cdle.colorado.gov/appeals
ISSUE #3: Holds. The main cause for accounts to be placed on hold was fraud. Somewhere in the user’s account, it’ll say “program integrity,” which translates into fraud hold. Here’s how to get that fixed.
(The state has flagged 1 million accounts for fraud so far during the pandemic. Legitimate users can request an ID verification link HERE. To date, the state has emailed 114,000 people verification links, released holds on 28,000 cases and paid out $25 million.)
But ID verification may not be what’s holding up one’s account. I just heard from a PUA user named Megan who had been locked out since Feb. 1. She even went through the whole IDme verification process. Still — nothing as of Monday. But she was persistent, spoke to “five different representatives” and emailed a bunch of lawmakers.
On Friday, she reported that she was finally able to speak to a criminal investigator over the course of two days earlier in the week. “Apparently a routing number was mis-entered in my banking info on my account in January, so it was locked from CDLE’s end,” Megan wrote. “The investigator … was able to give me access to certify by Thursday morning.”
She’s now been paid and is taking her daughter to celebrate with pinball games and cupcakes.
“If a claimant’s account is still on hold after successfully verifying their identity through the IDme, the fraud hold on their account may be significant enough that it needs to be individually investigated by a member of our fraud team,” said Smith, from the labor department. “Because this is a manual process, it may take some time for our investigators to gather all the information they need before contacting the claimant.”
→ Speaking of IDme: All new claims, including those for regular state unemployment, must soon be verified using IDme.
ISSUE #4: Ineligible status. It means what it says: You are not eligible for benefits. But that may be due to timing. For folks who shared this message with me, I deduced that many of them were trying to reopen their accounts before the system was ready for them.
If that’s you, this should be resolved in Phase 2, Smith confirmed.
“Federal rules require the department to confirm that claimants are either not eligible for, or have exhausted, regular state unemployment benefits before paying benefits under the federal pandemic programs,” she said.
And if you were one of the ineligible people affected pre-Phase 2, you should have received an email about it by Friday providing “situation-specific guidance,” she said.
Call center update (and jobs!)
More issues will emerge in Phase 2, but at least these ones have been addressed or are now known. The state does look at the day’s common issues from the call centers and tries to address them. While it’s difficult to get through, you should call, especially if your issues seem unique to you. If it’s an issue that may be affecting more than just you, email me!
(Just remember guys — I’m a journalist. I have no access to your case so if you share, please be specific about your type of unemployment, when benefits began, and even what you think the issue is. That helps me help others.)
Speaking of the call center, the state has relied on a third-party contractor to handle calls. But probably due to rising complaints, this third-party call center is now hiring Coloradans to handle calls from Coloradans. Here are the job listings for the third-party call center.
This week, CDLE added 60 agents to its regular unemployment call center and 100 to the third-party call center, which now has 600 agents.
But the state does have an in-house call center. It’s hiring 50 more agents. Pay starts at $19.90 an hour for part-time work and the state is looking for 250 applicants. Apply HERE if you’re interested.
Let me know if you apply or, better yet, get hired!
- Weld County Department of Public Works needs seasonal employees for eight- to 10-month gigs in road and construction work. There are all sorts of openings ranging from certified flaggers to those with Commercial Driver’s Licenses, plus a spray technician to help limit noxious weed growth throughout the county. Apply HERE.
- A statewide job fair? All virtual, of course. You can sign up for the Feb. 24 event HERE.
Explaining the eight week wait
So, why did it take eight weeks for the CDLE to program in the Continued Assistance Act, which passed Dec. 27
What we already knew is that federal lawmakers didn’t pass the COVID-19 relief plan until a day after the CARES Act expired. And then it took two weeks for the U.S. Department of Labor to get its guidance to state agencies.
But the cause of the remaining six-week delay was less clear. The state’s software vendor had to program the computer system to add the extra 11 weeks. But I didn’t understand the programming complexities until state labor officials addressed it during a call with reporters on Thursday.
Essentially, PUA of 2020 is not the same as PUA in 2021. Ditto for PEUC.
“These were not extensions. They were for new programs,” said Joe Barela, the Department of Labor’s executive director. “There are 12 different paths that people can take to get to where they are today on unemployment with regular unemployment and all the federal programs that have come out.”
For example, to curb the fraud that last year hammered the PUA program, Congress added an edict that states had to put a ID verification process by Jan. 27. That was IDme, of course, and Colorado started using the verification technology later in January.
In April, it took the state about four weeks to get the PUA system and the $600 FPUC checks up and running. But remember, that’s two new programs. Barela says there are now at least 12.
Those changes apparently meant that programmers couldn’t just tell the computer: “Add 11 weeks.” It was more like they had to figure out how to “add 11 more weeks, but not for people who haven’t been verified or who triggered a fraud alert, and don’t forget the people on State Extended Benefits, who need to return to PEUC despite moving to PUA in December and let’s not think about the mixed earners just yet.” That’s my translation, by the way.
As mentioned in Thursday’s story, labor officials fear there will be a pause in pandemic benefits in March if the next round of COVID relief doesn’t pass soon in Congress. The more tweaks to future benefits, the longer it will take to program the system.
“We are certainly advocating our congressional leaders to please try to make this next round of benefits as simple as possible to reduce programming time and ease the burden on the state,” said Cher Haavind, the labor department’s deputy director. “Certainly that gets benefits into the hands of people who need them quicker. There needs to be an acknowledgement at the congressional level that states do need to reprogram their systems.”
As several thousand people who read this knows, What’s Working is sent out as a newsletter every Saturday morning. If you’re reading this on The Sun’s website, then sign up for the newsletter at coloradosun.com/getww.
But sometimes, I update the column after it’s already been published. This could happen heavily this weekend as Phase 2 rolls out, so feel free to check back over the weekend and don’t forget to let me know what else is going on out there. Good luck everyone! ~tamara
This story was updated on Feb. 22, 2021 with data from the Department of Labor.