By Kati Weis

DENVER (CBS4) – CBS4 Investigates has obtained hundreds of internal emails from administrators in the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment, which highlight more concerns with Colorado’s unemployment system. The emails also detail several workers’ rights advocates who are working to try to address those issues.

(credit: CBS4)

“We’ve heard stories from people throughout the pandemic who are teetering on the edge of complete ruin,” said David Seligman, a labor attorney and executive director of Towards Justice, a legal nonprofit that fights for workers’ rights. “We’ve all been deeply concerned about the challenges facing workers during this pandemic.”

Seligman and several other legal nonprofits wrote a stern email to the CDLE this summer, asking to work with the agency to address several “shortfalls” that they said are having a “catastrophic impact” for “thousands of Coloradans.” Read the full letter here. 

Seligman tells CBS4 he’s spoken with many unemployment claimants struggling to get paid, because of issues with the system. Some of those people, he says, are on the brink of suicide.

David Seligman, the head of Towards Justice, speaks with CBS4 Investigator Kati Weis about unemployment concerns. (credit: CBS4)

“When their desperation is a life and death matter, it’s terrifying,” Seligman said. “It’s one of the hardest things.”

It frustrates him that claimants struggling to get paid have a terrible time getting in touch with customer service representatives for help – that there’s not even an email address claimants can use to reach a helpful person directly.

“I think one problem is that we’ve got a system of bureaucracy that was established decades ago and isn’t designed to be for workers in the 21st century,” Selgiman said. “There’s not an email address where workers can easily like access the agency as far as we can tell, and those are things that we’d love to help the agency in resolving.”

Since he and the other nonprofits sent the letter this summer, Seligman says there has been some progress in working with the CDLE to address their concerns, but he says there’s still more room for improvement.

The emails obtained by CBS4 also illuminate problems found in a U.S. Department of Labor audit on the CDLE’s unemployment system, including a “misunderstanding” that led to overpayments to 25,000 people of $227 a week instead of $223. Over time, that added up to $912,000 overpaid. Read the full USDOL audit findings and CDLE responses here. 

“It did not become apparent until the audit took place,” said Phil Spesshardt, the benefits services manager for CDLE’s unemployment branch. “You have to understand this was a brand new program.”

While nearly totaling $1 million, the overpayment misunderstanding was overall small in comparison to the nearly $20 million that was paid out to criminals who filed fraudulent unemployment claims during the pandemic.

The federal audit found other issues, as well, including “missing or incomplete” CARES Act reports and an adjudication backlog of more than 1.1 million claim issues.

The CDLE sent responses to the federal government about what may have gone wrong, but an internal email from the CDLE’s executive director Joe Barela shows he wasn’t impressed with his team’s answers.

“I think our replies sound like excuses and we provide no actual solutions or resolutions in our responses…????” Barela wrote one early morning in May.

Joe Barela speaks with CBS4’s Kati Weis. (Credit: CBS4)

This fall, CBS4 asked Barela why he wrote that at the time, and if he still feels like the department has not identified actual solutions.

“There were places where we misstepped where we put a program into place during the middle of record volume, and we switched from, you know, I’ve said it many times, a duct tape and chicken wire system to an agile system that was based on current century technology,” Barela said. “So, I do think we’re constantly looking at, yes, there are problems, but do we have teams that are working on that both in-person and with technology to program the system to get us to a place where we can handle issues that come up.”

 RELATED: 1980s Unemployment Tech Caused Hardship For Hundreds Of Thousands Of Coloradans In 2020

Barela said the adjudication process had been turned off until just recently, which is what led to the claims backlog, however, he says federal teams of specialized employees are currently helping the CDLE work through the backlog and get remaining claimants back on track. Those teams, he said, are called “Tiger Teams.”

A spokesperson with CDLE said the Tiger Team is finalizing a recommendation report for the CDLE, which will help direct new federal grant funding requests to bolster the CDLE’s efforts in the near future.

Asked about claimants who have been on the brink of suicide as a result of complications with his department, Barela said: “I think as a department, we need to listen and get to the root cause of what’s causing that delay in payment, but I also think, unfortunately, there are people who, because of an error in the system modernization and user-error that their payments got held up, and we want to get those results, as quickly as possible, but I think it’s very easy for people to forget that, during the pandemic, we had a responsibility as an unemployment system to pay at one point over 446,000 people, a weekly wage replacement benefit. No employer in the state of Colorado, and I would think probably globally, has an employee base that big.”

While Barela says his department is working on solutions, Seligman believes the state needs to go farther. He says legislators need to take a serious look at allocating more funding for the unemployment system, so it’s better prepared in future crises.

“We think that the agency is genuinely committed in good faith to addressing these problems, but we need to make sure that folks across government feel this urgency,” Seligman said. “I think it’s critical that we all understand that these were a life and death matter for many people, and they continue to be, so we need to make sure that the urgency is there, across government, and work to address them promptly.”

Kati Weis