Gig Workers Frustrated With Vague Error Messages As Colorado Expands Unemployment System

April 20, 2020
r mr mDavid Zalubowski/AP Photo
This April 16, 2020, file photo shows a closed sign hanging in the window of a coffee house since a statewide stay-at-home order was put into effect to stop the spread of the new coronavirus in Denver.

After weeks of waiting, Carly Sargent-Knudson and their partner were eager to file claims in Colorado's newly expanded unemployment system.

They are among the roughly 370,000 gig workers, independent contractors and self-employed people who are allowed to collect unemployment for the first time under a new federal law. The state began accepting applications on Monday at ColoradoUI.gov.

Sargent-Knudson, a dance instructor, filed a claim at 12:30 p.m., a couple hours after the system went online.

"It went right through, no problem," they said.

But when their partner Ky filed their own claim, they got a vague error message:

"Based on your responses and other information we have on file for you, you don't appear to be eligible for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, but you may be eligible for a standard Unemployment Insurance claim."

Sargent-Knudson's father, a self-employed photographer, got the same error. So did his wife, a yoga instructor. All three had checked the rules and expected to qualify. Numerous other people reported the same error message to Colorado Public Radio.

"It’s really frustrating to not understand why my spouse’s claim is not able to move forward," Sargent-Knudson said. "It’s also scary. We have a baby, we have a 10-month-old baby, and our primary lines of income are stopped through the foreseeable future."

More than 18,000 people successfully submitted applications under the new "Pandemic Unemployment Assistance" program on Monday, according to the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment.

But PUA comes with a complicated set of rules that may disqualify applicants, and it wasn't apparent which rules tripped up Sargent-Knudson's family.

Sargent-Knudson's partner held a regular W-2 job for several months earlier this year. That could be a complicating factor, according to the state labor department.

"It seems like the most prevalent issue is when people have 1099 (freelance or independent) income and W-2 income," Cher Roybal Haavind, deputy executive director for CDLE. "Some of these weird combinations of income may be giving them an error message."

Did you encounter an error message? Share your experience with reporter Andrew Kenney at akenney@cpr.org.

CDLE is encouraging people who collected W-2 wages in 2019 or 2020 to apply through the regular system first. If they qualify, they must collect regular unemployment. If they are rejected, then they can apply for the PUA system.

But others who got the error message said they hadn't collected any W-2 wages. David Bethany, 35, works for a moving company where he is classified as an independent contractor. He knows he didn't receive W-2 wages in 2019 because he just did his taxes, he said.

"I've been trying to attend all of these town halls and webinars. Everything they've been saying was to wait for these PUA applications to come out," said Bethany, who's attending Colorado State University for a bachelor's degree in fish and wildlife management. "Then today rolls around and I'm kind of back at square one."

Some people are encountering errors because they started or completed an application in the regular unemployment system, according to Roybal Haavind. Even a partial application in the regular system can cause problems with the PUA system.

Others may be unaware that an employer contributed unemployment premiums on their behalf, which may disqualify them from PUA.

In general, Roybal Haavind said that people who are encountering PUA errors should try "to the best of their ability" to complete an application in the regular system.

And if you accidentally filed in the regular system, try to complete it anyway and file a request for payment; CDLE staff may be able to sort out the problem, she said.

But Bethany said that he couldn't progress past the first page of the regular process because he didn't meet the prerequisites. He's stuck "looping in a loop," he said.

Roybal Haavind promised to look more closely into problematic cases.