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135,000 unemployed Coloradans get benefits after months of waiting. But thousands of others face glitches and denials.

“I WILL NOT have a stroke,” writes one frustrated, unemployed Coloradan. More fixes are being addressed this week by the Colorado Department of Labor.

Bird Tree Cafe employee Allie Johnstone talks with customers Thursday, June 11, 2020 in downtown Colorado Springs. The restaurant is open again to dine-in customers. (Mark Reis, Special to The Colorado Sun)
  • Credibility:

The dizzying roller coaster ride for some of Colorado’s unemployed has gone something like this: No money since Dec. 26 when federal benefits ended, hopeful for the February restart, getting stuck, calling for help, placed on hold, disconnected, retrying, reopening their claim on Saturday, glitches, then denied again. 

“Will this ever end?” emailed Bobbie Barr, who has shared her experience for the past several days. “I promise, I’m laughing my butt off because of this. I WILL NOT have a stroke.”

Glitches have been confirmed by the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment. Fixes are on the way, the agency says, including for one issue that prevented many people who exhausted their benefits last year from getting the much-anticipated new round of 11 weeks retroactive to Dec. 27. That “zero-claim balance” issue should be resolved Tuesday night, labor officials said.

Thousands of other Coloradans, however, were finally paid this week for the first time since the day after Christmas. The state has paid $254 million to people who reopened their accounts since Saturday, when the so-called Phase 2 started. That’s roughly 135,000 people who requested more than 200,000 weeks of current and retroactive benefits.

For those 135,000 people, everything seems to have gone as planned. Unpaid weeks from January and February showed up in accounts, users confirmed they were eligible and the money made it to their banks on Monday. 

TODAY’S UNDERWRITER

“So, the new system worked for at least one person,” Sandra Stuart wryly wrote after sharing that the unclaimed past weeks showed up in her MyUI+ account. She was paid Monday.

The labor department had a news conference Tuesday to share what happened over the weekend. 

“We do think the system is working as designed,”Joe Barela, the labor department’s executive director, said during the call with reporters. “I want to caution you, we did get this rolled out expeditiously (within) our window of three weeks. Our vendor would have loved to test the program for many more weeks to make sure that we didn’t have any errors.” 

Phase 2 fixes and other updates

But there were errors. And the state has already resolved some while other upgrades are in the works, said Jessica Hudgins Smith, press secretary for CDLE’s Division of Unemployment Insurance. People making Pandemic Unemployment Assistance and Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation claims are especially affected and the agency shared updates:

  • 9,000 PUA users’ accounts were fixed Saturday to allow for the additional 11 weeks, made available under the Continued Assistance Act.
  • 13,000 accounts still have some sort of problem — missing payments, people with out-of-state IDs, denied PEUC claims, ineligible standard unemployment claims that prevent reopening PEUC accounts — that will be taken care of this week.
  • The additional 11 weeks were supposed to populate nearly every unemployed worker’s account. But “that did not happen. On Sunday, we discovered the root cause and began developing a fix,” Smith said. “That fix is set for deployment Tuesday night.”
  • Some overpaid accounts from which CDLE demanded repayment last year but then forgave the debt, saw the demand for overpayment return in Phase 1 and 2. For accounts that were forgiven last year, the system should correct itself overnight. “This may happen more than once as we continue to work on a more permanent solution than this temporary fix. If a claimant’s overpayment was already forgiven, they need not to worry,” Smith said.
  • There’s still a known issue for people who have been unable to get paid for the week of Dec. 27 to Jan. 2. A fix is expected to be deployed this week.
  • Locked accounts are likely fraud holds. Users should go ahead and request access to the ID verification tool IDme (use this form to request a link). But it may take longer than 24 hours for a hold to be removed. Some issues go deeper than identifying a user’s identity and need to be investigated. According to CDLE, there are still 19,000 weeks that have issues or integrity holds.
  • Those who were on State Extended Benefits and did not apply for PUA must wait a bit longer to get paid for the missing weeks between Nov. 28 and Dec. 26.
  • To remain eligible for unemployment, users must continue looking for a job or invest in new skills. On Wednesday, the state is hosting a virtual job fair with 150,000 jobs, Barela said. Participants can register ahead of time at this LINK

The unemployment call center was busy on Monday, with wait times of 1.5 hours, said Phil Spesshardt, acting director of the state’s Unemployment Insurance Division. He said there were 256,000 calls going to the call center, though the labor department’s analysis showed those calls were being made by 19,000 people who were repeatedly calling in. 

“It’s possible the 19,000 making multiple calls (prevented) other people from being able to get in,” Spesshardt said. 

A solution? CDLE rolled out a new form for users to report dropped calls, hangups and unprofessional call center representatives. 

Tales and tips from the frontlines

The topsy-turvy ride continues to raise and dash the hopes of many who are unemployed. When glitches occur, it affects the credibility of the CDLE. But more so, it impacts the claimant’s psyche because they are just trying to make sense of the pandemic unemployment process that does not make sense. Sometimes, however, it ends with the reward.

Ty Cain, who lives in Aurora, said he returned in Phase 1 only to find that his PUA gig-worker status had changed to regular unemployment, which is not for gig workers. His claims were denied. After Phase 2 opened, he got paid on Monday, though he’s still stuck on regular unemployment status. 

“I’ll consider that a good glitch,” he wrote in an email, adding that he was able to pay March rent to his landlord, who agreed to renew the lease but with a $50 increase.

On Tuesday, he said his status finally reverted to PUA. 

Maybe more people should just follow the lead of Erin Joy Swank, who in December became one of the reluctant volunteer moderators of a private Facebook group where unemployed Coloradans trade battle stories about getting paid.

When Phase 2 reopened, she requested just one week’s worth of payments. “I did one test week for each — myself and my husband and we received payment this morning,” she texted. “Huzzah!” 

Swank, who’s been on unemployment so long that she had to file a new claim in February, had long ago used up her regular benefits, and then the federal Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation and also State Extended Benefits until they abruptly stopped Nov. 28. As a moderator of the group, which nearly quadrupled in size since December to almost 8,000 members, she’s seen the panic, the woes, the frustration and anger. But she also honed in on what works and how problems were resolved.

“I’ve read about enough glitches that take time to fix, and if a fix is made going forward, sometimes it seems harder to get the retroactive ones corrected,” said Swank, whose status is now PEUC2. “I’m happy to report that funds were in my bank this morning. Another moderator did one a day after each appeared safely in her bank account.”

MORE: Colorado Sun stories on unemployment