Desperation and exasperation are driving people to take extraordinary measures to reach the Colorado unemployment office at a time when hundreds of thousands of Coloradans are relying on state-distributed benefits for support.
They’re calling other departments in the unemployment office and asking to be transferred to a customer service agent. They’re mailing documents to the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment to see if it triggers a response. They’re showing up at the office without an appointment.
It’s clear some people are beyond sick of hearing an automated voice say, “We are experiencing very high call volume. Please try your call again later.” They’re panicked about the possibility of not being able to feed and house themselves and their families because online instructions aren’t clear about how to handle their unique unemployment situations.
More than 603,000 Coloradans have filed initial claims for unemployment support since the middle of March as the COVID-19 pandemic has decimated the economy. State officials said earlier this week that 81% of claimants, or just over 488,000 people, have received payments so far.
The customer service line has become a major chokepoint as tens of thousands of people seek help navigating the unemployment system’s murky waters as well as their own changing personal circumstances — like furloughs becoming permanent layoffs. The state’s traditional call center and a separate center for the federally funded pandemic unemployment assistance program together field an average of 12,000 unique calls daily. Between the 200 and 250 agents working in those two call centers and a callback request form added to the unemployment division website earlier this year, the office can handle about 4,000 callers per day, said Jeff Fitzgerald, director of the state’s unemployment division.
That adds up to roughly 40,000 calls per week are going unanswered — a huge number no matter how many of those people are phoning in with questions that can be answered by browsing the state’s website, watching how-to videos or conversing with the website’s chatbot.
Aaron Whitworth, 31, of Littleton is among the people who say they have called the state’s customer service line hundreds of times in recent weeks with nothing to show for it.
“I have called 25, 30 times a day every day for weeks on end,” Whitworth said Tuesday. “That’s ridiculous.”
When the labor department reopened its office in June for a limited number of in-person meetings each weekday, Whitworth repeatedly tried to schedule an appointment only to find the online calendar booked solid time and time again. Finally, a few weeks ago, he visited the office without an appointment. He was turned away by security but not before being given a sheet of paper with the same customer service number printed on it that he has been calling.
On Monday, Whitworth wrote an email to Gov. Jared Polis highlighting his previous military service and asking for help. He wrote the email not just for himself, he said, but for the many people across the state who are desperate to access their benefits.
“I am at a loss,” he wrote. “I want to believe in my state but so far it has been failing me.”
As of Thursday afternoon, Whitworth had not received a response.
Some strategies for getting through to an agent that have been shared on social media include calling in at 7:58 a.m. and listening to the hold message to join the queue when the call center opens at 8 a.m. and calling the overpayment department (303-318-9035) and asking to be transferred.
Whitworth, who served two tours in Afghanistan with the Marines, counts himself lucky even though he hasn’t gotten through. His wife has remained employed throughout the pandemic. He receives some monthly support from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. And he was called back to his job as the equipment manager for a party supply rental company on June 9 after being on furlough since March 28.
His already-thin savings have been whittled away to almost nothing while he struggles to access unemployment benefits, but he is not facing foreclosure or visiting food pantries like other people might be.
“There are thousands of people who are probably in the same situation and might be losing their houses,” Whitworth said. “It’s just not right.”
His unique claim situation highlights the complexities of the state’s system, particularly during the pandemic, when state emergency orders and new federal laws like the CARES Act have changed the way it operates multiple times. Those complexities are why labor department officials say it can take up to 12 weeks to train new call center agents.
Whitworth lost a job with a restaurant supply company in 2019 and collected unemployment until earlier this year, when he exhausted the maximum amount of benefits granted to him over a 12-month period. He had only worked at his new job for four weeks when he was furloughed due to the virus.
Usually, he would not have been able to reopen his unemployment claim but because the CARES Act extended the benefit window to 39 weeks up from 26, labor department officials contacted him and recommended he do so. Only the state’s website won’t let him reopen his claim. And now he is stuck in the loop of endless calls with no answers.
The state unemployment office has received $21 million to meet the unprecedented demand, most of it from the federal government. The money has helped the department hire 85 more call center agents, but 25 others have moved elsewhere in the department, Fitzgerald said.
The department is investing $680,000 into a partnership with Google that will create a “virtual agent,” the first phase of which is expected to be operational in mid-July. The virtual agent will be able to field calls and answer general questions about claims. If the technology can’t help the caller solve their problem, it will allow them to schedule a callback with a human representative during a specific window — a feature Fitzgerland hopes will improve the equity of the call center system. Later this summer, the virtual agent will have the ability to access some claims-specific information for callers, and, eventually, it will be able to work with Spanish speakers.
Fitzgerald emphasized that emergency funding only lasts through the end of 2020. The only way he sees his department being able to meet people’s needs is through a strong website loaded with information and features that help people navigate the system and technology functions like the virtual agent.
“If you’ve got this much demand, there is no way we can train fast enough and there are not enough administrative dollars that are available that we could address that. No is the bottom line,” he said. “That is why you must diversify the way you serve people.”
Fitzgerald said he is proud of the way his staff has risen to the occasion over the last few months.
Stephen Tanner, the owner of Denver-based Elevated Catering, credited the division for doing great work to ensure his staffers were able to collect benefits when he was forced to lay them off this spring.
“My employees have reported very long wait times on the phone, but they also reported that everybody there has been so gracious,” he said.
While Google readies the virtual agent feature, Coloradans continue to seek ways around the call center logjam. Staffers in U.S. Rep. Diana DeGette’s Denver office have helped roughly 300 people tap into benefits in recent weeks, a spokesman said.
Cher Haavind, the Colorado Department of Labor’s deputy executive director, said that constituent advocates working for both state-level and congressional elected officials in Colorado have been very helpful in disseminating information on the state unemployment program and helping people who are struggling with their claims.
Jefferson County resident Lynn Peterson on Wednesday reached out to his representative, Colin Larson, for help. Peterson is retired but works seasonally as an usher and ticket agent for the Colorado Rockies. He was laid off in April when the 2020 Major League Baseball season was suspended.
Despite repeated attempts to file a claim and hundreds of phone calls in recent months, Peterson has never received a personal identification number needed to request payments from the unemployment office. He is hoping Larson’s office can finally get him over the hump.
“It’s been totally frustrating,” Peterson said. “And obviously there are many, many other people out there like me.”