Coloradans Applying For $300 Unemployment Benefit Face Tech Troubles And Long Wait Times

Colorado Unemployment Insurance Office Denver
Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
The Colorado Unemployment Insurance Office in downtown Denver on Tuesday, July 21, 2020.

UPDATE, Sept. 19, 9:30 a.m.: State officials say payments are on their way, and technical difficulties have been addressed.

Our original story continues below.

Rent is due for LaVonne Pettit, a former inventory specialist living in Parker, in two weeks — and she’s not sure if she can pay it.

Since Tuesday, she’s been trying to certify for the retroactive $300 federal unemployment benefit every hour, with no success.

That means proving to the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment that she is unemployed because of the pandemic shutdowns. It’s a federal requirement that must happen before the state can process the payment. 

“I’ve gone through every penny I’ve saved in my 401k,” she said. “I have nothing as a backup because I’ve used it all for bills to survive. Rent is due in two weeks and I have no way to pay for it.” 

Pettit said it took two months to get the first round of pandemic unemployment after she was laid off in May. It helped her stay on top of all her bills except for her car payment.

But then the additional $600 federal aid under The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act expired late July, and she’s been struggling to stay afloat since. 

The second round of unemployment aid, now down to $300, has been plagued by technological failures. The state announced payments would start going out this week but they haven’t been disbursed yet.

Colorado got approval to provide six weeks of retroactive payments, for people unemployed from July 26 to Sept. 5, but that’s the limit. People who are making initial claims are not eligible for this benefit. 

The technology difficulties come as people continue to struggle to keep a roof over their heads, like Pettit. About one in five Coloradans are worried about housing because they can’t pay for their rent or mortgage. Gov. Jared Polis banned evictions towards the beginning of the pandemic but that expired in June. 

Several people on Twitter complained of glitches, particularly with the virtual assistant online and over the phone like this one. 

Some tried to opt for a call-back option for when it was back up and running and were met with a message saying the earliest they would hear back would be November.  

The state has since advised people to not opt for a call-back at this time while it continues to figure out the problem. 

Patty Hunt, who lives in Littleton, has been relying on unemployment since she was laid off from her job at a convention center on March 24. When the state emailed her about the $300 benefit, she made sure to take down the date to be sure she was one of the first to apply. 

Her journey began at 9 a.m. Tuesday. She clicked the link to the page from the email the state sent her and was quickly met with stalls and glitches. 

“I would get to the first section of questions, answer and then it would stop,” she said. “I’d try again and get to the second set before it would freeze again.” 

Hunt was trying to certify herself every hour. It wasn’t till 2 p.m. that she was finally able to get through and be approved. Once in, the entire process took her about five minutes. 

According to the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment credits, some of the failures were due to a high volume of people trying to apply at the same time.

Throughout Tuesday afternoon, Google was trying to adjust the interface because of the high volume. By 3 p.m, Google had to completely reboot the bot, which caused a half-hour outage. After that, some people were able to get through. 

“The tech issues [Tuesday] will have no bearing on someone receiving their [benefits] once we begin paying,” said Cher Haavind, the chief communications officer for CDLE.

The state had previously said it needed time for technology updates, after receiving approval in August. 

According to a written statement, the state updated the virtual statement to allow certifications Friday. After it functioned normally over the weekend, the state sent information to 220,000 eligible claimants to notify them that the feature was available.

Issues began for people Monday evening. The state had to fix issues ranging from increasing database timeouts to loading balancing issues between English and Spanish versions of the virtual agent. Haavind said these fixes have been piloted and are being monitored. 

After the initial fixes, there were still intermittent technology issues Wednesday. As of Wednesday evening, the state disabled the certification functionality while it works on a permanent solution. The state said the technical difficulties will not impact claimants’ ability to ultimately receive those benefits and the goal is still to have disbursements begin this week. 

So far, 16,000 people have successfully been certified and 350,000 Coloradans are eligible. 

This isn’t the first time the state’s technology for unemployment filings has faltered. In March, when the pandemic shutdowns first hit Colorado, the state’s computer systems also were incredibly strained by the high volume of people filing. It required an overhaul for their website. At the time, the state advised people to apply during off-hours like late at night or early in the morning.

In April, gig workers struggled when the state allowed them to collect for the first time under the federal law.