DENVER (KDVR) — The wait for unemployment benefits has generated more emails to the FOX31 Problem Solvers than any other topic, by far, since the pandemic began.
Not a day goes by that the Problem Solvers don’t receive an email from someone asking for help to get their account unfrozen so they can start receiving unemployment benefits.
The Problem Solvers could have invited a few hundred people to participate in our Zoom conversation on their troubles and frustrations over their unemployment benefits, but we focused on 10 people who have spent countless hours on their phones and computers trying to find out why their unemployment claims have been flagged — and why they can’t get them unlocked.
Nearly all 10 individuals have gone four months or more without unemployment benefits. Problem Solvers Investigative Reporter Rob Low asked them their story, one by one, and each shared similar stories of despair.
“I’ve lost my house. I’ve lost my car. Pretty much, I’m in a motel at this point”, says Danielle Call.
Leo City said he is so behind on all of his payments that he’s “desperate.”
Amanda Gauna is a single parent of three and fears for her family.
“I don’t get no money. I’m in the streets and I got three kids,” she said. “How am I supposed to feed their mouths, you know?”
It’s a similar story for Janet Lasebre.
“They’ve said they’re going to expedite, but two months later here I am. Nothing,” Lasebre said. “I’m homeless with my kids. It’s sad I’m to the point where I want to give up.”
Colorado went from a near record low unemployment rate of 2.8% in February 2020 to a staggering 12.1% unemployment rate just two months later, in April 2020, after the pandemic shutdowns began.
As the state began paying out claims, the Department of Labor and Unemployment soon realized cyber criminals were taking advantage of an overwhelmed system. Colorado admits it paid out $22 million dollars it wishes it hadn’t, often to international crime rings pretending to be unemployed Coloradoans.
In April of this year, Colorado forced everyone seeking unemployment to go through a new system, ID.me. The system is an online verification system used to determine who’s for real and qualifies for help.
But the system only made the process more challenging for some, like Russ Messick.
“I was getting unemployment, and then they cut me off and put me through to that Colorado ID,” Messick said.
The Problem Solvers reached out to Pete Eskew, the general manager of public sector business for ID.me. Eskew said his company is doing all it can to eliminate fraud, but he warned: “This is organized crime across the globe.”
One of the biggest challenges facing many legitimate claimants is when they file after some crook has already filed on their behalf.
“If you’re the second person to have applied for benefits in your name but you’re actually that individual, you’re gonna have to wait in line, because the state has probably already paid out somebody that got there first and bought your identity on the dark web,” Eskew said.
ID.me recently hired 300 workers with plans to add a thousand more to help those who say they’ve been unfairly locked out of their accounts. For Ronald White, he’s been dealing with his case for nearly a year.
“They keep telling me to just wait, and that’s what, essentially, I have been doing since July,” White said.
All 10 of the people we spoke to had various issues navigating ID.me. But they don’t blame ID.me nearly to the same extent they blame the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment, who still has to verify a person’s eligibility once ID.me has confirmed a person’s identity.
The Problem Solvers spoke with Phil Spesshardt, who is director of the unemployment-insurance division with the Department of Labor Employment.
“Understand that the workload that we received in the last year equates to roughly five years worth of work,” Spesshardt said.
“While we would prefer to be able to have everybody float through and sail through in real quick fashion, unfortunately, that is just not the case for some individuals,” he added.
Spesshardt said that at present, 30% of all unemployment claims in Colorado are suspected fraud, and since the beginning of the pandemic, the state has received 1.2 million claims that are believed to be bogus.
But Spesshardt claims that there is less fraud everyday, all because of ID.me, which is red-flagging questionable claims to make sure no more public funds get misdirected.
But the problem is so many people, like viewer Monica Rodriquez, tell the Problem Solvers they’ve been unfairly flagged, with their claims delayed while their bills were not.
“I’m beyond to the point where I’ve sent the governor a letter about this — and I sent him three!” Rodriquez said.
FOX31 gave CDLE the contact information for the 10 viewers we talk with. A state spokesperson told the Problem Solvers it’s been able to resolve six of those cases.
The remaining four remain under investigation, including one case where the state said a person appeared to be trying to collect benefits in two different states — which would be fraud if proven true.