Starting Wednesday, a machine will be answering the Colorado unemployment office’s customer support line, and busy signals will be a thing of the past. For those who want to speak with a person, patience still will be part of the equation.
The state will launch its new “virtual agent” system after the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment’s perpetually over-stressed call center closes Tuesday afternoon, Jeff Fitzgerald, the chief of the state unemployment program, said Thursday.
Created through a partnership with Google at a cost of $680,000, the virtual agent — accessible by calling the customer service line (303-318-9000 in metro Denver, 800-388-5515 outside of Denver) or by visiting ColoradoUi.gov — will be available 24 hours a day.
It will be able to answer general questions on topics including work search requirements and reopening claims. If the automated system can’t help a caller, it will allow them to schedule a callback from an unemployment office staffer as long as the caller can make themselves available during a two-hour window, Fitzgerald said. The pandemic unemployment assistance call center, which serves self-employed people, gig economy workers and others, will not use the new technology.
“It provides equity for folks getting in. It also provides time certainty on getting their needs met,” Fitzgerald said.
More than 617,000 Coloradans have filed unemployment claims since mid March amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Weekly claims numbers have begun to level off — 7,727 people filed for state benefits last week, the lowest total since March 14 — but the unprecedented spike in need has more than overwhelmed the state’s call center, where, on average, 8,000 calls go unanswered each weekday.
State officials have emphasized the importance of technology — online how-to videos, an automated chatbot on the website — in meeting the demand. The virtual agent system is employed in several other states, Fitzgerald said. Once the technology is better integrated with the state’s system in mid-August, it will be able to provide callers with specific answers to some claims questions. Fitzgerald expects the virtual agent will eventually be able to handle more than 50% of call center demand.
Fitzgerald acknowledged it will take the new system time to catch up. He expects that in the early going, callback schedules will fill up quickly, just as the schedule for in-person meetings in the labor department’s lobby have. He hopes that frustration will be short-lived.
People relying on state benefits to survive during the pandemic have been sounding the alarm for months about how hard it is to reach someone at the unemployment call center. A spokesman for Gov. Jared Polis this week lauded the work labor department officials have done in the face of skyrocketing needs.
“The department has successfully paid unemployment benefits to more than 500,000 hardworking Coloradans and the staff is working around the clock to help people who have questions about their claims,” spokesman Conor Cahill wrote in an email. “They have hired staff, automated processes and next week will implement a new solution that will help address the call center volume even further.”
State Sen. Chris Hansen, D-Denver, worked with the labor department on a bill passed in the 2020 legislative session the will reform a number of aspects of the unemployment insurance program including greatly increasing the amount employers pay into the unemployment trust fund in the future.
Hansen said he has helped hundreds of constituents who have reached out for help with their claims and is aware of how hard it has been for many to reach someone at the call center this spring and summer.
“I would say by any reasonable measure its behind,” Hansen said. “We should not have those long of wait times, and the department knows that. And the department has brought significant new resources to bear.”
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