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A storm is rolling in thick and gray, as twin brothers Robert and Richard Graham, 60, get in the last few brush strokes of the day at the Colorado College campus.

Recently hired, the two are enthused to be working. The recession and housing bubble weren't kind to painters, and both brothers experienced spells of unemployment.

Robert had a worse time than his brother — not because his ego or checkbook were more sensitive, but because he's had poor luck with the state's unemployment system. While Richard simply filled out his paperwork and collected his checks; errors cut off Robert's benefits several times, and he found himself on the phone for hours, trying to set things right.

"I just think the whole state system needs to be looked at; it needs to be revamped," Robert says. "I think they need to take whoever's the director of the Department of Labor, and I think they need to take that person out and fire them. That's my personal opinion."

These days, others probably agree with him.

Colorado's unemployment insurance system has hit more bumps than usual in May. Federal cutbacks have booted some longtime recipients off the system unexpectedly. Other people have faced stricter requirements for job searches. Meanwhile, staff at the state's unemployment office remain grossly outnumbered by citizens who need help filing claims, Department of Labor spokesperson Bill Thoennes readily admits.

'Out-of-touch'

For Robert, this added up to a lot of time spent on the phone. He spent more than three hours trying to contact the office earlier this month, when his benefits were cut off due to a paperwork error. When he finally reached someone, he was transferred several times, eventually ending up back at the desk where he started. He still hasn't received his final unemployment check.

He's not the only one looking for ways to reach the unemployment office. Jeanne Cotter, spokesperson for Pikes Peak Workforce Center, says an unemployment representative stops by her offices twice a week to counsel those who have questions or concerns about their benefits. People have begun lining up at 7:30 a.m. for a chance to speak to the rep, with at least 50 seen each day.

Another local, Gina Douglas, has experienced a different kind of problem. She wrote a piece printed in the Indy's Letters section May 2, complaining that new requirements for the long-term unemployed, intended to ensure that beneficiaries are looking for jobs, only created more paperwork and bureaucracy.

"It just shows how out-of-touch the governing class is with constituents," Douglas wrote.

Others have suffered a worse fate. Due to federal cutbacks, they've been booted off the system entirely, with perhaps three weeks' warning.

A battle for resources

It's the lawmakers in Washington, D.C., Thoennes notes, who decide how much funding Colorado's unemployment office gets, where that money goes, and what requirements must be met to get it. That, in turn, dictates how many staff are available to answer phones or visit local offices, and how long the jobless can get benefits.

Lately, the feds have drawn back funding from Colorado because the state's unemployment rate has fallen. In April, Nevada's rate was 11.7 percent. Rhode Island stood at 11.2 percent, and California, 10.9 percent. Colorado's rate, by comparison, stood at 7.9 percent, below the national 8.1 percent.

"It's kind of good news, bad news," Thoennes says.

In essence, it's just another up-and-down on the roller-coaster ride that unemployment benefits have endured since the recession began. Payments once lasted just 26 weeks. In July 2008, the federal government began ratcheting up that number, creating a system of "tiers" that states qualified for based on their unemployment rates.

At one point, Colorado's unemployed qualified for 99 weeks of benefits. But today, residents only qualify for 73 weeks. That number's expected to fall again in late summer or early fall.

The feds have also required more paperwork from the long-term jobless, as evidence of an active job search.

Perhaps because of the changes, call volumes to the unemployment office have increased recently. In 2010, the office answered 214,508 calls, a peak. In 2011, that number was just 161,322. But as of April 30, the office had answered 75,253 calls in 2012. If that trend keeps pace, the office will answer 222,759 calls this year.

Meanwhile, staffing is down. In 2009, the office had an average of 438.1 full-time staffers. As of March 2012, that average hovered at 387.

Thus, long waits on the phone have become the norm for those calling the state unemployment office.

"I know a lot of people would say, 'Why don't you hire more claims agents?'" Thoennes says. "But we're restricted by how much [federal] funding we receive."

Of course, there's still plenty of money flowing to the state's unemployed. In 2011, Colorado's jobless received nearly $1.8 billion in benefits.

stanley@csindy.com

  • Colorado's already-burdened unemployment system experiences more setbacks.

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