Frustrations mount over Colorado’s troubled unemployment insurance system

Chris Keck received his last unemployment check in August.

Since then, the 43-year-old heavy equipment operator from Colorado Springs has watched his car get repossessed and has been evicted from his apartment. He lives in a borrowed RV parked in a friend’s backyard.

He’s angry about the entire situation, and he blames the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment and its troubled unemployment insurance system.

“I don’t think anyone understands how hard it is to lose your home, your vehicle and your dignity,” Keck said. “They stripped it all from us.”

It’s been a month since the state labor department launched a new computer system used by the unemployed to file benefits claims, and the department continues to draw fire for the system’s problems along with a host of other issues — some under its control and some beyond its powers.

The frustration has reached a boiling point.

On Monday, about a dozen people, including Keck, protested outside the labor department’s downtown Denver offices, where armed security blocked the building’s glass-plated front doors. At least one person filed a lawsuit against Labor Secretary Joe Barela in Denver District Court, arguing the failures violate state laws, and began instructing others on how to file their own lawsuits. Even people who discuss their issues in various Facebook groups began quarreling over anger-fueled posts and who was trying to help whom.

The vitriol grew so intense that Cher Haavind, the deputy executive director, told media outlets last week that the labor department was suspending its weekly press calls and temporarily banning its staff from on-camera interviews because of death threats. Haavind, who also serves as the department’s spokeswoman, wrote that she is one of the employees who has been threatened.

“We hope as we are able to continue to pay out Continued Assistance Act benefits in the coming weeks, the emotional response from claimants will subside as they receive their needed payments,” Haavind wrote in the email. “We understand this is a very frustrating time for some claimants, and we are implementing process improvements daily and as quickly as possible to assist in expediting benefits.”

The ongoing complaints from unemployed people also captured the attention of the Colorado legislature, with the six-member Joint Budget Committee, which controls the state budget, on Thursday approving a request for information that will force the labor department to answer for how it has handled the unemployment crisis. Since March 29, more than 1 million Coloradans have filed for unemployment insurance and more than $6.97 billion in state and federal benefits had been paid.

“The anger would go away”

For Erin Joy Swank, a moderator in the Facebook group Colorado Unemployment/PEUC/PUA Q&A, everything boils down to a breakdown in communication between the labor department and the hundreds of thousands of people filing for benefits.

“If they would communicate, the anger would go away,” Swank said.

Instead, emails are sporadic, language on claims forms is bureaucratic, FAQs are hard to find on the labor department website, and it’s next to impossible to get someone to answer when dialing a call center for help. On top of those problems, the labor department in January mailed 1099-Gs with an incorrect Taxpayer Identification Number and then scrambled to get corrected tax forms to those who collected unemployment benefits in 2020.

The disconnect between what labor department officials say during weekly press calls and what people are experiencing is huge, Swank said.

“We’ve had such great success. We’ve had so many calls,” Swank said, repeating what labor officials say. “Well, how many dropped calls are there? How many people are being told we can’t help you?”

But there is hope for improvement.

On Wednesday, Barela and four other labor department executives met with Swank and Brittany Dreiling, a protest organizer and leader of another Facebook group, to discuss ways to better communicate. Swank posted a summary to her group and expressed overall satisfaction with the promises that were made.

The department plans to host additional town hall meetings and is creating an online dashboard with updated data points, Smith said. The dashboard will include known glitches in the system with timeframes on when they should be fixed.

When the pandemic struck, the labor department was overwhelmed. Few state employment agencies were prepared for their unemployment rates to go from record lows to record highs in a matter of weeks. Complaints came early and often in Colorado, with part of the problem centering around an outdated, clunky claims system.

The labor department took its system offline at the start of 2021 and then launched its new one on Jan. 10. It was a program that was more than two decades and nearly $100 million in the making.

At that time, only people with existing regular unemployment insurance benefits could apply, and many of them ran into trouble getting new passwords or logged on and found incorrect information transferred to the new system. Others found themselves flagged for potential fraud. Call centers were overwhelmed and the waits to get a phone appointment with someone who could help were four to six weeks, many people reported.

Since the new system — called MyUI+ — launched, 154,018 initial claims were filed, 438,744 users logged in, 168,837 claims were paid and more than $412 million in benefits have been paid, according to labor department data provided Friday .

Still, hundreds of thousands of people who were on programs other than regular state benefits waited to be told it was their turn to apply for benefits.

First, the state needed to install an identity verification step to meet federal Department of Labor requirements. On Feb. 1, 230,000 people who had existing claims through the federal Pandemic Unemployment Assistance or Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation programs finally could apply. But, again, they ran into more problems logging on or simply understanding how to file. They crashed the phone system at the labor department’s call center.

People posted scores of messages on Facebook pages saying they should have had a balance carried over from 2020, but then found their accounts wiped out when the new system opened to them.

“Very frustrated”

Hernando Alvarez, an unemployed hotel banquet worker in Colorado Springs, said he’s been trying to reopen a claim for PEUC benefits for weeks but hasn’t been successful. He logged into the new system but found his account listed as inactive. There was no explanation as to why and now he’s waiting on a phone call from someone who can help.

“The unemployment department changed the old platform for a brand new one, but this new one has been presenting multiple mistakes and problems,” Alvarez said. “There is no way to speak with a real person and the virtual helper is always confused and limited. Very frustrated.”

Meanwhile, Alvarez, 61, is dipping into his savings account to support himself and his 89-year-old mother.

Alvarez’s problem likely is related to the conversion to a new computer system, said Daniel Chase, the labor department’s chief of staff. In many cases, data transferred to the old system didn’t copy accurately into the new system. The department is aware of those problems and is working on temporary fixes to get people paid, he said.

Another issue plaguing the system and complicating claims for recipients is bureaucratic language. Take this question as an example: “I am no longer unemployed as a result of one of the above COVID-related reasons.” The double negative tripped up so many people that labor department executives were forced to address it during a Feb. 4 press call.

“That question is seared into my brain,” Chase said.

At least 800 people were denied benefits because of an incorrect answer, Smith said. The denials were nullified and instructions were sent on how to file again. Those people will receive back pay for the missed week of pay, she said.

Officials changed the question online to clarify what is being asked and added a note warning people that if they answered yes to any part of the question, their claim would be denied. But they could not remove the question, per federal regulations, Chase said.

It’s difficult to measure how well the labor department is doing during the pandemic.

“It is unclear to staff how the Department is measuring its own successes and failures,” a Joint Budget Committee report, released Thursday, said.

The budget committee staff was reluctant to add to the department’s workload but said without any audits or reports it was impossible to determine whether the new computer system was successful and how efficiently the department was helping the state’s unemployed, the report written by staff member Amanda Bickel said.

Bickel’s report said the budget committee staff believes the department needs a routine performance report to have effective management. The legislative committee agreed and asked for a report be prepared by July 1 and for it to include data such as call center volume and response times, the number of fraud holds and the average time it took to release legitimate payments and date on how much money paid in fraud was recovered.

“Every single failure on our part creates a crisis for someone in our state,” state Rep. Kim Ransom, R-Douglas County, said. “I just don’t want that.”

As for Keck, he waits for relief.

He exhausted regular state benefits in August but qualified for 11 weeks of Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation, a federal benefit for those who run out of their regular state unemployment insurance. But he never received a payment, and the federal program expired on Dec. 27.

The program has been renewed, but Keck isn’t eligible to file a claim for it until the week of Feb. 22. Even when the money starts coming, the damage to his finances will take years to repair.

“It’s the waiting that got my truck repossessed and I was evicted and that can’t ever be fixed,” Keck said. “It’s hard to find a job when your transportation has been taken away. I don’t think CDLE understands how much harder they have made that for lots of people.”



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