By Kati Weis

DENVER (CBS4)– As many continue to wonder where their unemployment payments are, with little luck getting answers from help lines, the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment hosted a town hall Friday to address concerns. The agency also explained its plans for paying out the next batch of pandemic unemployment assistance dollars made possible by the federal Continued Assistance Act signed Dec. 27, 2020.

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The two town halls, one in English and another in Spanish, came after the state’s unemployment system went dark earlier in January for a technology upgrade from the 1980s tech it was using before.

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Because of the tech update, only regular unemployment claimants are currently able to access their online accounts.

Officials say by early next week, pandemic unemployment assistance claimants who had benefits available when the CARES Act expired on Dec. 26, 2020 should receive information from the department about how to reactivate their claims, and could start receiving payments as early as next Friday, Jan. 29.

The payments will be disbursed in phases. Those who had benefits available when the CARES Act expired will receive their assistance in the first phase – starting Jan. 29. Claimants whose benefits were exhausted, or who are new claimants, will be in phase two.

Officials say they will be in touch with that group of claimants later than next week with information on how to file.

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Click here for more information about the pandemic assistance payments.

All claimants, regardless of their benefits status, will receive the additional Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation, an extra $300 per week, during phase one of the rollout, according to officials with the CDLE.

“This upgrade was critical to ensure we could administer the latest round of stimulus payments, under the continued cares act and implementing future programs. We feel confident that making the conversion from the old system to the new system will give us greater flexibility but also bring these new programs, and future stimulus unemployment benefits, up much more rapidly,” said Joe Barela, Executive Director of the CDLE. “If we hadn’t done this, the extensions could have taken two to three times longer.”

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But even after the tech overhaul, many people continue to struggle to get through to a real person for help about why their claims aren’t being paid out.

“I waited through the whole automated calling, put a pin in, gave them my phone number, and then you’re supposed to get a list of available call back times, but then you get to it, it says there are no available call back times and it literally disconnects you,” said Chelsea Smith, who says she’s been paid the incorrect unemployment amount for months, and hasn’t been able to get any help fixing it.

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Smith says after the upgrade, her regular unemployment insurance payments stopped altogether, and for two weeks she hasn’t been able to speak to anyone who can help her get them back. A spokesperson for the department tells CBS4 she is looking into Smith’s claim.

Asked why there haven’t been available call backs for regular unemployment claimants, Phil Spesshardt, branch manager for unemployment insurance at CDLE said, “It’s a volume issue and whether you have enough supply for that demand.”

“We have continued to hire and tried to increase call center staff, but to be honest with you, with the sheer volume that’s coming in, I don’t think it would be possible to hire enough people to staff a call center to handle all those calls immediately as they come in or with only a five-minute wait or a two-minute wait,” Spesshardt said.

Officials with the CDLE said they have since added 11,000 call back slots to help address the need.

Friday, the CDLE also announced December’s unemployment numbers, saying the state’s unemployment rate was at 8.4%, the highest it’s been since June 2020 and higher than the national unemployment rate.

CBS4 also reached out to the governor’s office, asking if more resources will be made available to the CDLE. The governor’s office responded with the following statement: “Gov. Polis called the state legislature back to provide real relief to Coloradans and our small businesses. While Washington failed to take action during the Fall, Gov. Polis stepped up to provide $375 in direct cash payments to people who were on unemployment as a result of the pandemic. We know there is more to be done which is why we continue to urge Washington to take real meaningful action and the Governor looks forward to working with state lawmakers to pass a stimulus package that reignites our economy, helps small businesses and creates jobs.

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“CDLE has provided unemployment compensation to more than 1 million hardworking people over $6 billion in unemployment insurance benefits during this global pandemic, helping jobless Coloradans pay their bills and returning that money back to our state’s economy. We know there are people who still need help navigating the unemployment system, filing for benefits (many for the first time) and the new benefits system will provide CDLE with more agile and reliable technology to meet this unprecedented demand for benefits including additional federal benefits to come.”

Kati Weis