Losing to the system 

Ranger Rich

My father has a saying about dealing with the government: It's like wrestling a monkey. It's dangerous and smells awful and, when it's over, all you've got is a handful of hair and a funny look on your face.

I think that's his saying. Although it might have been, "Monkey see, monkey do."

Not that I'm calling anyone a monkey, but let's talk about the folks who run Colorado's unemployment system, a fine group of people who stop work each day at noon to eat bananas and swing from the tire in the break room.

Just ask Merl Wallace. He has engaged the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment for two months now. All he has to show for it is a clump of hair that isn't monkey hair but a clump he ripped from his own head in frustration.

Wallace is 60 and lives up the road in Larkspur, home of the annual Renaissance Festival, a magnificent event each summer in which people in 16th-century costumes say strange things to you and send you home penniless.

Wallace has worked since he was 8. He started out mowing grass in Iowa, and put himself through school. He has a pair of business/management degrees from the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs and a résumé that, frankly, makes mine look like I'm an idiot. If you can imagine that.

Wallace has been operations director of Penrose Hospital's pulmonary department, executive vice president of giant Apria Healthcare and a vice president at Coram Healthcare in Denver. He's now a health care consultant and does some Web marketing. In June, though, he lost his main job as director of a large Denver call center collecting bills for health care systems. Wallace, who has worked in Colorado nearly 30 years, applied for unemployment benefits. But the telephone and online system, the only lifelines to state services, have left him baffled.

He sits at his kitchen table with his laptop and stacks of papers, trying to navigate the maze. In the ninth week of his quest, he has not received a penny. "This," he says, "is a Web site nightmare."

The process began smoothly. He signed up in June and got a personal ID number. The state calculated his benefits at $487 a week. He acknowledged, online, a five-week vacation payout from his ex-employer. The state said he couldn't collect benefits for five weeks. "I can live with that," Wallace says. "That's fair."

But when the five-week period ended, Wallace vanished. Disappeared. The online system told him his Social Security number did not exist.

"I tried the number 40 times," he says. "I went to my lockbox and got my Social Security card just to make sure I had it right, even though I've had it memorized for 40 years."

Eventually, a Web site note told him to contact a Denver labor office by phone. Oh, and by the way, there are no actual unemployment offices in Colorado. None. Everything is (not) done online or by phone.

"I am," says Wallace, "in a virtual unemployment line."

In July, his battle took a turn: "I was directed online to call 303/318-9000 to speak to an agent. ... I spent two weeks calling 15 to 20 times a day, starting at 7:30 in the morning until 4:30 in the afternoon. On each call I was forwarded through the automated system and eventually was told to call back later."

Wallace says he has spent about 80 hours online or on the phone. "I'm a smart guy," he says. "I understand Web sites. I know I can overcome this system and get my benefits." But this time, he says, "I've fallen into a black hole."

If you're curious, give the phone number a try. Listen carefully for the part where the man's recorded voice says you can speak to an agent, but "please allow two hours or call back later in the week."

Then it sounds like he falls off the tire.


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