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Internal unemployment director emails show system breakdowns holding up money for desperate Coloradans

Internal emails show insurance hold ups for desperate Coloradans
Internal emails show insurance hold ups for desperate Coloradans 03:51

As more desperate people slam the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment for delays in critical unemployment payments this spring, CBS News Colorado has obtained internal department emails exposing some of the reasons for the dysfunction.

Since we started covering problems with the state's unemployment system during the pandemic, we've helped people receive up to $200,000 in unemployment money they were owed.

Claimants continue to write to us saying it's not just the payment delays that are frustrating, but also how unhelpful customer service can be.

Adam Bruns is one such claimant. He applied for unemployment back in November, after he was laid off from his tech job.

"Getting ridiculous at this point," he said. "I gave them a call in January, and they were saying, 'well, you know, it says we're processing your identity still.' I was like, 'okay, or is there anything that you need me to do?' And the woman on the- in the office said, 'no, there's nothing for you to do.' So, I was like, 'well. I guess I'll just wait.'"

After six months of waiting, it took only one email from CBS News Colorado to the state's unemployment office for the state to finally pay him the nearly $19,000 he was owed.

"I'm very grateful that you, that you looked into this," Bruns said.

Now, internal department emails obtained by CBS News Colorado show even the head of the department, Joe Barela, has been fielding similarly stuck claims. In one email this year, he told staff there's sometimes a "black hole" for claimants until they email him for help.

In February, Barela wrote in one email, "please look into this excessive delay. Another case that seems to get lost in a UI black hole until it rising to a complaint to me!"

The emails also expose some system breakdowns and technology errors that held up deserving people's claims this year. 

In March, one manager told Barela they were escalating a system issue for a "hotfix" after a claimant emailed Barela begging for help. 

 "I have asked for this to be escalated to the next available hotfix" the manager wrote. "The fix for this claim will be in place this week. The code fix so this doesn't happen again with other claims is logged and will be prioritized."

Asked what a "hot fix" is, and how often it is requested, a department spokesperson said: "Hot fix is a standard term used in tech environments when something outside of the day-to-day operations needs to be addressed. Hot fixes exist for a variety of reasons and have different levels of urgency. They are issues that can be resolved outside of our standard release schedule for system updates. This allows these "hot fixes" to be implemented quicker if there is an urgent need to improve the user experience."

Leadership's frustrations with inaccurate customer service communication were also described in the emails CBS News Colorado obtained. 

In an internal email from March 19, Barela told his staff: "I really think we still have transparency communication issues on what UI staff are telling claimants."

The emails also show when an unemployment manager called customer service himself to test out the system, he waited on hold for 30 minutes and ended up having to write up new guidelines for customer service reps who weren't properly informing people about their claim status.

"It's been very frustrating having to do these weekly certifications and nothing happening," Bruns said. 

State labor officials said they were waiting on Bruns to verify his identity, but Bruns says he uploaded identification documents twice, and screenshots of his account portal said, "there is no action for you to take at this time."

We asked the state to clarify why his account would say that if he did in fact, need to take action, but officials insist that other areas of his portal made it clear about what he needed to do. 

"I think they really need to take... a better look at their software that they're using, like, who's running their website.... because if they if they say that they aren't getting the information, then there's some sort of disconnect somewhere," Bruns said. 

The department says that right now, there are only 187 claims that have been pending for more than eight weeks. If you've been waiting longer than that, the department asks claimants to call 303-318-9000 to have their claim escalated.

A department spokesperson provided the following statement:

"Just as fraudsters continue to target and evolve their tactics to wrongfully collect funds from government assistance programs, we continue to monitor and adjust our strategies to identify and prevent those criminal tactics from becoming successful. We know from the fraud monitoring initiatives we have in place, that bad actors continue to target Colorado's UI program and share tips on how to do so on the dark web where criminal activity takes place. We have the heavy responsibility of protecting the State's fund while also ensuring a user experience for legitimate claimants that doesn't cause undue stress during an already stressful period of joblessness. 

We recognize that some legitimate claimants may get caught up in our fraud detection measures resulting in longer processing times and continue to implement several process improvements to improve the claimant experience and reduce these processing times.

By adding a bank account verification service, we have seen a 45% drop in fraud holds with suspicious bank accounts. We developed the Claim Status Tracker after conducting several focus groups with claimants to determine what language and information would be most helpful for claimants to see. This is a new feature, and we continue to make improvements to it. We've also recently added the option to verify identities in-person at USPS locations to circumvent any technical/access barriers legitimate claimants were experiencing. Claimants can also get in-person support at our downtown lobby (621 17th Street, Suite 100, Denver, CO, 80202) We encourage claimants to make appointments online, as we support a limited number of walk-ins each day."

The unemployment office also provided the following information about claim assistance support:

Denver Metro: 303-318-9000 | Toll-Free: 1-800-388-5515

Spanish: 303-318-9333 | Spanish Toll-Free: 1-866-422-0402

If claimants need help verifying their identity, they can do so in one of the following ways:

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