By Kati Weis

DENVER (CBS4) – Throughout the pandemic, CBS4 Investigates has helped several people get their unemployment benefits – more than $50,0000 collectively – after months of calling the agency with no answer as to why their claim wasn’t being paid out. Statewide, tens of thousands of people are still waiting to be paid unemployment benefits, many saying they’re not getting answers when they call the customer service lines.

So, we wanted to know why it has taken media inquiries for some claimants to get their money. CBS4 Investigates obtained internal emails that illuminate some possible reasons why.

(credit: CBS)

On Monday, CBS4 Investigates reported the emails show the department is still operating on an unemployment technology system from the 1980s, which has “caused hardship for hundreds of thousands of Coloradans.” Now, CBS4 Investigates is learning through the internal department emails that the agency’s resources, both federal and state, were already “tapped out” at the start of the pandemic.

“(Unemployment Insurance) took a hefty cut from the feds this year, so they are already processing claims at full capacity,” Colorado Department of Labor Executive Director Joe Barela explained in an email to managers.

Barela said because the economy was doing well, and unemployment levels were so low, before the pandemic began, the department’s funding was cut, meaning the department’s staffing was thin and resources were short.

Barela said right before the pandemic, there were only about 400 claims per week. By May, there were more than 400,000 new unemployment claims.

The internal emails show back in April, an administrator admitted about the agency’s customer service call center, “if the demand nears even close to 100,000 calls, we will never be able to handle that internally.”

This summer, CBS4 Investigates reported about long waits for a call-back appointment and difficulties getting through to a customer service agent.

“I do think at the beginning, we were not resourced to handle the volume, we had just gone through a 5% administrative federal cut in January, we were reducing staff, and then all of a sudden we have a surge,” Barela said. “The CARES Act did give us the resources and the Families First Act, as well, to start ramping up the system to look at how we could better deal with the initial surge and the ongoing volumes. Today, we are still deploying resources, in fact, we are putting in resources to look at process improvements.”

Since then, the agency has implemented an online assistant to answer questions and has hired a third-party call center to answer Pandemic Unemployment Assistance calls.

(credit: CBS)

But CBS4 Investigates has learned that third party call center isn’t able to look at a claimant’s case file, and sometimes can’t give specific answers about what’s wrong with a claim.

Like with Allison Collins’ claim. She called more than a dozen times without success. Days after CBS4 Investigates inquired about her case this fall, she got the some of the $20,000 she was owed.

“Everyone I talked to basically just said…I don’t know where your paperwork is, I can’t see your paperwork on my end, I can’t access it, it’s this different department, who’s processing it, and who will send you an email when it’s ready,” Collins said. “Why can’t they see that? They weren’t able to answer any of my questions, and I’m sure they’re not able to answer thousands of other individuals’ questions.”

Even eight months into the pandemic, still about 20% of claims haven’t been paid out.

Jasmine Bratton, of Colorado Springs, lost her job braiding hair. Her unemployment benefits were frozen in August and after no help from the call center, she even got an in-person appointment in Denver two weeks ago, but workers she met with still couldn’t help her, nor could they give her a reason as to why her claim wasn’t being paid out.

“I went out of my way, I got somebody to bring me up here, and you’re literally just sitting me in a cubicle and telling me oh yeah, well you’re with PUA, I don’t know what to do with you. But I’ll just submit your ticket again. and I’m like, ‘That’s all? I came really far, I came a long way to get here,’ and she was like, well ‘I’m sorry,’” Bratton explained. “Like, wow.”

The internal emails also show many people frustrated about their claims throughout the pandemic went to their legislators for help. Barela personally helped address some of those concerns.

Asked what else people could do to get help with their claims, other than going to the media or their legislator, Barela said, “if you’re still having trouble getting your claims, I really want to encourage you to go back to online try to use the virtual agent to process your claim further down.”

He says the virtual agent has gotten more sophisticated since it was first launched this summer. So, something it might not have been able to help with before, it could potentially address now.

Asked how he felt about his agency’s performance in 2020, Barela said, “I think what we’ve asked of the unemployment insurance division in the last 10 months has just been incredible, so overall, I think 80% of those who have filed a claim have received unemployment insurance benefits in the last 10 months, I would give us a B, a healthy B.”

But Bratton disagrees.

“A ‘B’? I can’t speak for nobody else, but for me, and knowing that I’m doing everything I’m supposed to, I would give you a D, or a C-, because you guys say you’re working diligently, but you’ve got people who are still stuck on hold for 8 months… I don’t have 8 months, If I have to go another 8 months, and if my clientele doesn’t pick back up, I’m going to be homeless,” Bratton said.

The agency has since apologized for the mix-up with Bratton’s claim, and Bratton has been paid her back pay in recent days. The agency also said because a fraud hold was put on her account, only higher-up administrators could address what was wrong with it.

According to Cher Haavind, Deputy Executive Director and Chief Communications Officer with the Department of Labor, the department is “currently reviewing (the) on-site lobby appointment process to ensure these claimants are not coming in unnecessarily when their claim requires further investigation.”

Haavind says the department recommends if you have an integrity hold on your account, call the PUA customer service line so you can be put on the review list.

Kati Weis