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First phase of federal unemployment rollout begins in Colorado; call centers tied up

Colorado's unemployment rate essentially unchanged in May
Posted at 6:14 AM, Feb 04, 2021
and last updated 2021-02-04 08:14:46-05

DENVER – About 60,000 Coloradans were able to request federal benefit payments Monday as the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment began rolling out the first phase of federal unemployment benefits in the latest federal coronavirus relief package.

As of Monday evening, those roughly 60,000 people requested 150,000 weeks of payment – the majority of which were Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) for gig and self-employed workers, and Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation (PEUC) payments for people who had not exhausted those benefits when the CARES Act expired on Dec. 26, according to CDLE Unemployment Insurance Division spokesperson Jessica Hudgins Smith.

The department emailed around 230,000 people last week they said were likely eligible to start reopening their federal claims this week so they could start reapplying for benefits.

The CDLE also paid 70,000 Coloradans receiving regular benefits $61 million in Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation (FPUC) – the $300 a week benefit for anyone receiving at least $1 of unemployment of any kind – to people who qualify. Those funds were backdated to Dec. 27 as well.

The state has not issued guidance on when Phase 2 – for people who exhausted their federal benefits before Dec. 26 and people newly eligible since then for PUA and PEUC – will begin, but officials said they hoped to have more information later this week.

Some people have run into snags as they work to reopen their claims after the upgrade earlier this month to MyUI+. The CDLE directed people reopening their PUA or PEUC claims to file for regular state unemployment and be denied per a federal requirement, but some people ran into trouble in trying to complete that filing if they were on mobile devices or certain browsers, some users reported to Denver7.

Others were still running into issues with having fraud holds placed on their claims. The MyUI+ upgrade also included new fraud detection triggers, which have tied up some Coloradans’ rightful claims.

And for people who were trying to reach the call center, some waited for hours or received busy signals, they reported. The department said the call center received 8,500 calls by 5 p.m. Monday and is averaging at least 7,000 calls over the past several weeks.

Thomas Devine, who drove for Uber until his doctor told him to stop because of his Stage IV cancer diagnosis, said Tuesday he has not received an unemployment check since Dec. 19 and that his family and children have been supporting him in the meantime.

“It’s getting pretty stressful,” Devine said.

He said he waited on hold for two hours Tuesday after calling the call center but was disconnected.

“It’s a real nightmare to go through this,” Devine said. “The department of labor needs to know how many people out here are hurting.”

Nicole Waters said Jefferson County Human Services was able to verify that she had money remaining on her claim when they verified her food stamps but said that her unemployment payments have been put on hold for more than two months.

She said the only way she can feed her kids is through food stamps and that she’s behind on January and February rent – all while homeschooling her children.

“It’s really frustrating,” She said. “It’s really heartfelt, and I can’t be the only family that is having this problem.”

Amber Foster, a blackjack dealer in Central City who was first laid off in March, says she has wiped out her savings waiting for the extended federal benefits and has spent hours on hold waiting for more information from the CDLE.

“I spent upwards of 11 hours between Thursday, Friday, yesterday and today – 11 hours on hold to get nothing accomplished. … And I have a five-year-old who is online schooling, so I had to juggle that while being on hold,” she said. “It’s not just one, or two, or 10 accounts that are having problems. It’s thousands.”

The CDLE said it is adding staff this week to its main benefits call center, which is staffed 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, at 303-318-9000. The department is utilizing the main call center along with its virtual agent to answer frequently asked questions and some calls specific to claims.

But the department’s third-party call center – 303-536-5615 – was also seeing heavy traffic. That call center is being utilized to help Coloradans set up MyUI+ accounts, file new claims, deal with fraud integrity holds that are linked to a true claim, and work through weekly certifications.

People with fraud integrity holds will have to call the third-party call center and be sent a link to verify their identity through ID.Me – another program put in place by the CDLE because of federal requirements under the latest relief package, the Continued Assistance Act.

Smith, the spokesperson for the Division of Unemployment Insurance at CDLE, said Tuesday that many calls into the call center have involved people confused about the phases of the rollout and said the website was being updated with a new FAQ section to better address those questions.

“In the meantime, please know we have all hands on deck trying to answer the questions coming in from claimants the last few days,” Smith said.