Helen Cross has spent hours on hold or listening to busy signals while waiting to contact officials at the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment, trying to iron out problems with her application for unemployment benefits.

If nothing else, the Grand Junction woman has plenty of company around the state.
State officials acknowledge that applicants for benefits have overwhelmed the 240 lines into the call center in which officials deal with claims and say they are dealing with a workload 188 percent greater than a year ago.

Cross thought she could beat the rush and began calling about 20 minutes before the 7:30 a.m. opening of the call center.

After 20 minutes holding on the phone and being assured by the mechanical voice that calls would be answered in the order in which they were received, she heard the line go dead at 7:30 each time she tried that gambit.

“Over a two-week period I made 200 calls” on her cell phone in an effort to resolve an issue with her claim.

She said she got through once. In that call, Cross was referred to the governor’s advocate’s office and was told someone would be in touch within 24 hours. Forty-eight hours later, she said, she had heard nothing.

When officials did get back with her, she was assured her claim had been filed.

Cross had filed the claim long before and was trying to resolve problems with it related to her part-time employment.

Although it’s easy to start the process by filing online for unemployment compensation, claimants with problems after that have to work the phones.

And, “Try to do it by phone, and you’ll never get anywhere,” she said.

It didn’t help, she said, that at one point she was told she hadn’t paid the unemployment-insurance premium, “your employer did.” That rankled, she said, because Cross had figured her own labor costs many times in grant applications for the Saccomanno Research Institute and knew the insurance premiums were attributed to her.

Mesa County officials have asked the Labor Department to allow them to handle some issues locally, Mesa County Work Force Center Director Sue Tuffin said.

“We put together a package of requests,” Tuffin said. ”We’ll see if they allow some things to be done locally.”

Operations were centralized by the state back in 1992, she said.

With that system, “I’ve seen some people wait as long as five hours to get through and just give up,” Tuffin said.

Callers’ chances are worse on Mondays and Tuesdays, she said. The best day to call is Thursday.

Problems that crop up with existing claims require claimants to speak with Labor Department officials.

“They must speak to somebody,” she said. “They have no other choice.”

The Labor Department hired 20 more people last fall and are now hiring 30 more who should be on board later this month, department spokesman Bill Thoennes said.

”Of course, being hired does not mean they will be on the phones taking calls immediately,”
Thoennes said. “Unemployment insurance in Colorado is a complex series of laws, and new claims-takers must go through a rather intensive training period before they are adequately prepared to assist the public. When these latest hires are ready, we will have over 500 claims-takers in the call center.”

The call center, he said, is receiving 5,000 calls a day, but officials can deal with only about half that amount, he said.


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