This weekend was set to be full of mayhem with unemployment benefits ending for Coloradans on Saturday and a new wait expected as the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment reprogrammed its system to add in the next round of federal benefits.
But there was a lot of early behind-the-scenes action by the labor department to avoid even one day’s delay — unlike in December, when most people on pandemic unemployment began their eight-week wait for additional aid to be added to their accounts. (Some got partial payments after five weeks, but others, well, I am so sorry for all of those who have still not been paid since December — more on that below.)
Whether it was efforts by those on unemployment who reached out to the labor department, state legislators, Congress and even Gov. Jared Polis or this column, someone was listening. (I credit the voices of the unemployed.)
Joe Barela, CDLE’s executive director, said that his team reached out to the U.S. Department of Labor earlier to get permission to continue paying benefits during a possible gap between the two relief plans — and then program the system when guidance arrived. Congress kept the wording simple. And President Joe Biden signed the American Rescue Plan Act on Thursday, a few days before the last one expired. So now, no gap is expected.
“It is our top priority right now that we ensure Coloradans experience a seamless transition as they continue to need to be on financial assistance through the unemployment programs,” Barela said.
To reiterate from earlier stories, here’s what people on unemployment can expect:
- Six more months of Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) and Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation (PEUC)
- $300 per week supplemental pay until Sept. 6
- A tax break. The first $10,200 in jobless aid received last year is now tax-free for those earning less than $150,000.
So, how is this supposed to work?
By the time you read this, the change should be done. The unemployment computer system was scheduled to go offline at 7 p.m. Friday and be back up at 3 a.m. Those who use up their last week of federal benefits by Saturday can go ahead and request a payment Sunday. That will exhaust their account.
However, courtesy of the American Rescue Act, an additional 29 weeks will be added to eligible accounts. Phil Spesshardt, acting director of the state’s Unemployment Insurance Division, said some testing still needs to be done to make sure the new programming takes.
But even if the additional weeks show up in accounts, no one can claim them until next weekend since the new relief plan doesn’t go into effect until March 15 — and you can’t get paid for days in the future.
The “no gap” story may be different for folks who still haven’t been paid at all or still have issues in Phase 1 or 2. And if you were on PUA in early February 2020, there may be a gap in payments. More below as I address updates and other unemployment news.
UPDATE, March 13: It worked! A reader shared a screenshot showing the 29 weeks showed up in her account this morning:
→ What’s with the 29 weeks? The new relief plan has a hard-stop on Sept. 6, which is 26 weeks from now. But the actual law (read it here) extends pandemic unemployment for 29 weeks, so those on PUA or PEUC can get up to 79 weeks. That means unless a new relief plan is passed, some folks on unemployment will still have benefits left when the program ends on Labor Day. CDLE officials say the difference is due to changes made by the Senate to end the program on Sept. 6 rather than three weeks later, which the House’s version proposed.
Jobs: Charter’s minimum wage now $18/hour
With the new aid package passed, it seems like a relief to start talking again about jobs. So Charter Communication’s decision to increase its starting wage caught my eye.
Charter isn’t the main cable provider in the Front Range — it does provide service on the Western Slope. But it also has a large technology operation in Greenwood Village plus a call center in Colorado Springs.
If you work at Charter, wages start at $18 an hour plus benefits, as of this week. The plan is to get to $20 an hour by 2022 nationwide, according to the company.
Offering competitive wages was critical to attract tech workers in Colorado, especially before the pandemic, when unemployment rates were near record lows. But that strategy didn’t change too much in the past year, said Bret Picciolo, a Charter spokesman.
“While COVID has created some short-term obstacles that have forced us to innovate the ways we recruit, the goal behind our increased starting wages is long term,” he said. “Over the last year, we have been successful in attracting many talented candidates. However, our approach is not only about attracting candidates, but also retaining quality employees who can build a career with Charter.”
Most of the 140+ job openings in Charter’s Greenwood Village facilities are not entry-level jobs, per se. Most roles are technical and start above $50,000 and get into six figures. Even tech internships start at $18.50.
The company is constantly looking for people to fill customer-service jobs in Colorado Springs. And those have entry-level friendly qualifications: a high school diploma or GED and, preferably, six months of experience in customer service and working with computers. Customer service supervisor jobs start at $41,200. And here’s a tip from Picciolo: New hires typically work in the office to get additional training but the majority have been working remotely.
Charter began increasing its minimum wage to $15 in 2015. That was around the same time Amazon also bumped up its starting pay to $15, but after Target announced its goal to get to $15 by 2020. Denver’s minimum wage is now $14.77 an hour and goes to $15.87 on Jan. 1, 2022.
If you haven’t been keeping track of what is happening in the U.S., the national minimum wage is still $7.25, where it’s been since 2009. While President Joe Biden hoped to tuck a $15 minimum wage into the new COVID relief bill, he backed away. But with the new administration, I’m sure the discussion will return.
UI dashboard update, 1099s and glitches
A handful of unemployed people emailed this past week, well, every week, that their benefits are still on hold and they haven’t been paid for weeks or months.
Some were caught in the software glitches of rolling out Phase 1 and 2. The top MyUI+ issues are now posted on the state’s daily dashboard, which may be more valuable than calling the customer support line at 303-536-5615.
(And if you get bad info from a call center agent, fill out this form to rat on them. If users call out agents by name, CDLE will provide extra training to the person or discipline them, if necessary, Smith said.)
The “double-dip” glitch, affecting people whose benefit year has ended causing them to reapply for a new year, was scheduled to be fixed on Friday. I began hearing from some folks that they got paid by Thursday, so the glitch was fixed. Then I heard from others that it was not. On Friday, the dashboard shared an update: Double dips were not yet fixed.
“We have discovered a portion of the population affected by this issue did not get fixed as expected and we are actively working to rectify the issue,” the dashboard says.
So … more waiting. But at least the dashboard may provide some comfort that CDLE is aware of an issue.
At least the amount of time spent waiting on hold for a call center agent has been in steady decline, according to CDLE data. On March 8, callers were on hold for one hour and 14 minutes. By Thursday, it was 15 minutes. And on Friday, it was, hold on, “only 15 seconds!” Smith said.
Back to the CDLE Dashboard
But notice that the MyUI+ issues page is only about MyUI+. If your account is held up in a fraud hold, you won’t see any resolution in the works on the issues page.
For those other issues, check out the FAQ page and the How Do I page, advised Jessica Hudgins Smith, press secretary for the Division of Unemployment Insurance. That’s where you’ll find information on:
- 1099-Gs: All 1099 forms have been mailed. Use this link to request another copy. For those who recently verified their ID through IDme, the 1099-G is in the process of being printed and mailed, Smith said. The 1099s availability online is only for PUA claims.
- Denials: A PUA claim is denied if someone says their unemployment isn’t a direct result of the pandemic. Claims are also denied if one answered a question incorrectly; physically or mentally unable to work; not completing work-search activities.
- Program integrity holds: These are the fraud holds where the user needs to request a link to IDme verification. But if you’ve done it, why is your account still on hold? That takes me to …
4,000 claims still on hold
Then there are people who haven’t been paid since December. Many are still caught up in these program identity issues, or fraud holds. So far this year, CDLE emailed 442,752 users the ID verification link to IDme. Of those, 57,945 have been released. That’s about 13% cleared. (Apparently, not all recipients even completed the IDme process.)
“There are 4,000 that require further investigation,” Spesshardt said. “Just because an individual successfully passes IDme does not guarantee 100% that we are going to release the hold right away.”
He offered one example: If IDme concludes you are deceased.
“We’re not going to pay you. It requires additional confirmation on our behalf and, by the way, if it’s showing that you are deceased and you actually are not the fraudster, you have bigger problems than just trying to have everything clear through us,” he said, suggesting someone in that situation better check with the Social Security Administration as well.
Of those 4,000 holds, about 2,800 had information that didn’t match up to what the labor department has on the user’s account. That’ll take CDLE staff additional analysis to verify users.
Spesshardt said CDLE hopes to hire a new vendor to help with the backlog. “But again, that number changes every day,” he added.
Odds and ends
→ No more Phase 3. Hello Phase 2B.1? There is no more Phase 3 or 4, which was supposed to include mixed earners and those with complicated histories. CDLE is instead calling these “optimizations” because they affect “small populations of claimants” and not the majority of the unemployed, Smith said.
→ Mixed earners: The extra $100 per week promised in the December round of benefits still has no ETA, Smith said. It’s also
not part of the new federal relief plan. Updated on March 15, mixed earners are part of the new American Rescue Plan until Sept. 6. An estimated 2,000 people who had $5,000 in regular income will qualify for the $100, Spesshardt said in an correction on March 15.
→ Missing SEB payments: You know who you are, all you State Extended Benefits people. Those who did not apply for PUA after Nov. 28 but could have “will be captured in future deployments as we continue to reprogram our systems to recognize these particular backdates. We hope to deploy these fixes soon. (American Rescue Plan) will not disrupt this effort,” Smith said.
Another Saturday, another blizzard. If you get terribly bored, The Colorado Sun has a whole archive of unemployment stories — not to mention just plain ol’ Colorado news stories that may be of interest. Hang in there folks and have a safe weekend. ~tamara
This story was updated at 9:12 a.m. March 13, 2021. Updates are noted in the story.
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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