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The Colorado Department of Labor and Employment office in Denver's Capitol Hill neighborhood on March 21, 2020. (Eric Lubbers, The Colorado Sun)

What’s Working: A version of this story first appeared in a segment of our weekly What’s Working column on July 16, 2022. Additional details are included in this story. Read the full column. >> Sign up for the newsletter

It’s now taking 10 to 12 weeks for Coloradans to get new unemployment claims processed by the state Department of Labor and Employment. 

There hasn’t been a sudden rise in new claims. Rather, said Philip Spesshardt, director of CDLE’s division of unemployment insurance, it’s the older pandemic claims that are “now being adjudicated.” 

An executive order at the start of COVID-19 required the agency to pay benefits first and review them later. As of Monday, there were 19,982 issues under adjudication. That’s down from more than 800,000 issues at the peak. There are usually multiple issues per claim leading Spesshardt to estimate that between 5,000 to 10,000 people may be impacted. 

Issues could include investigating whether the individual was eligible, whether it was COVID-19 related or whether there was a protest by a former employer. The agency must sort out claims of those who lost a job due to COVID from those who didn’t, which could impact an employer’s future unemployment insurance premiums.

“There was 10 years (worth) of work that came in the door of this building and (new complexities) which we never had to deal with before,” Spesshardt said. “Where we’re at now is certainly not acceptable to us. We certainly want to be further along on processing unemployment insurance customers.” 

Filing a claim for unemployment

But the backlog has created delays for Coloradans filing for unemployment for the first time. This week, on the MyUI+ page, where unemployed people file for weekly benefits, a banner informs claimants that processing “is taking 10 to 12 weeks from the date of file due to high volumes.” 

Some say it’s taking even longer than that. One unemployed worker who spoke on condition of anonymity said she applied April 1 and nearly 16 weeks later, is still waiting for her claim to be processed. She had to take out a personal loan and get money from her 401(k) to survive.

Before the pandemic, new claims took about four to six weeks to process. After the start of the pandemic, an executive order by Gov. Jared Polis forced the agency to put applicant reviews on hold and pay benefits within 10 days. 

Since April 1, there have been 32,273 new claims for unemployment benefits in Colorado, or an average of 2,300 per week, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. That’s higher than the pre-pandemic average of 1,500 to 1,800 per week. 

More claims continue to tax staff, which has also been difficult to retain. Spesshardt said the labor department is not unlike other employers who have dealt with labor shortages in the past year. A recent new training class for new hires attracted 10 people instead of 20, he said. The agency now has 89 available staff to process claims, compared to 71 before the pandemic. Another 20 are being trained.

The labor department split up its staff to handle older pandemic claims and new ones and is working on ways to prioritize new claims so those folks aren’t waiting three months for their first unemployment check. The goal is to get new claims processed within three to four weeks. In certain circumstances where there are no issues, a claim is processed and paid after the first week.

“We have a team that’s dedicated to working the old backlog and the remaining three or four teams are processing current claims as they (come in) right now. Again, right now, that requires some manual work for supervisors,” Spesshardt said. “They’re supposed to roll out an enhancement within the system (Wednesday) that will allow the system to automatically do that so we hope to see better efficiencies moving forward.”    

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, the number of new unemployment claims in Colorado was 2,289 for the week ending July 2, up about 215 from the prior week. That’s half of what it was a year ago but higher than the average week in 2019, when weekly new claims averaged 1,900. Continued claims were roughly the same as the prior week, at 16,566. Weekly continued claims have been declining all year.

People who are waiting on their unemployment claim to be processed should continue to document their search for work and request a payment each week. After their claim is processed and approved, all eligible weeks will be paid. For those who have been waiting more than 12 weeks, Spesshardt advised that they check spam filters and missed calls, and also call the customer service line at 303-318-9000 and ask that their case be escalated.

This story was corrected on July 21 at 11:34 a.m. to update the new weekly claims data in July 2021. New weekly claims for July 2, 2022 were nearly half of what they were a year ago. And on average, the number of new weekly claims in Colorado in 2019 was 1,900.

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