New tools, staff may reduce Coloradans’ long waits for unemployment office help

Kerry Torres’ situation is desperate and she’s hardly alone.

The 44-year-old single mom first applied for unemployment in Colorado on June 26 after being laid off from her job, one of more than 736,0000 Coloradans to seek state benefits since the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic. To date, the Castle Rock resident has not received any money or been able to reach a human representative of the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment.

Her most recent interaction with the unemployment office call center came roughly four weeks ago. She spoke to the “virtual agent” — Google automation software the state launched in July in hopes of making its unemployment call center more efficient. The software couldn’t address her problem, so she scheduled a callback appointment. The earliest date offered was Sept. 4. Now she waits while expenses pile up.

“I have a month more of bills. I am running out of money. I’m trying to keep a roof over my son’s head.  What am I going to do?” Torres said. “It’s horrible.”

Labor department officials are aware many people are facing long wait times for callback appointments. The average is four to eight weeks, according to Cher Haavind, the department’s deputy executive director.

Department leaders emphasize they are taking steps to address the backlog.

Those include:

  • An automated call campaign this week seeking to reach all of the roughly 30,000 people in the callback queue for the state unemployment system to encourage them to try the virtual agent’s recently added fact-finding functions. With the ability to collect information about questions that often bog down claims, it’s a tech upgrade that should be able to solve problems more quickly.
  • The hire of 61 new department staff starting Sept. 14. Thirty of those people are expected to join the call center, working with 90 existing full-time employees and 14 temporary staffers handling callbacks. The federally funded Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program has its own, separate call center.
  • Launching a Spanish-language version of the virtual agent Friday.

“As we do every single week, my team continues to work hard at finding efficiencies within our processes so that we can provide more callback sessions to claimants,” Jeff Fitzgerald, the state’s unemployment director, said Thursday. “As a result of that work they have found some additional capacity, and we continue on a weekly basis to open up more slots.”

The problem with opening up new slots — some as soon as Sept. 2 were available Thursday morning, Fitzgerald said — is they may go to people calling in with more recent problems, as opposed to people who have been waiting weeks or months like Torres. The department is working to find a technology fix to address that he said.

The virtual agent, which can be accessed at colorado.gov/pacific/cdle/unemployment, has handled 580,000 user sessions since July and led to 25,000 callback sessions, Haavind said. The online tool is much more accurate and effective than the call-in one, she added.

The labor department also is urging people using the system to help their fellow applicants out by canceling their appointment if they get their problem solved or become unavailable. There is a 25% no-show rate for callback appointments. Canceling a callback is an option the virtual agent offers online.

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