When Roger Reich lost his job with a software company in late 2007, it was relatively easy to sign up for 26 weeks of unemployment benefits.
Congress approved another 13 weeks last summer, and Reich's benefits kept coming. He assumed the same would happen in December, upon receipt of a letter telling him he was a phone call away from another seven weeks of federally approved benefits.
That's when Reich found the unemployment safety net had developed a gaping hole. In more than a dozen calls to the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment's customer service line, Reich says, he's never gotten anything but a busy signal.
"Our call center is just being inundated," admits Bill Thoennes, a labor department spokesman.
The department, which processes unemployment claims and provides benefit information, shouldered its load through the summer, Thoennes says. But calls increased during the fall, and a "tsunami" of unemployment claims hit around late November. The call center now receives around 5,000 calls a day from people new to the system or needing help, he explains. Staff can only handle 2,000 to 2,500 daily.
While visiting the city last Saturday, Gov. Bill Ritter said he's aware of cases like Reich's.
"We've made so many staff additions," Ritter said. "Even with that, it's been difficult to keep up."
The department is now hiring about 30 people, Thoennes says, but weeks of training means they won't staff phones until at least mid-February.
You can bypass the call center by filling out jobless claims online. Melissa Clifford tried to do that after being laid off from her teaching job nearly three months ago; unfortunately, she made a mistake setting her password. Now, she needs to get through to the call center.
"You can't talk to a person," Clifford says.
Even if she gets past a busy signal, she faces the expensive prospect of spending hours holding on her cell phone. So in between piecing together substitute-teaching gigs, the single mother of a 2-year-old blocks out time to call the labor department from a landline at the Pikes Peak Workforce Center.
New job cuts have brought in a flood of people in recent weeks, says PPWC official Dana Rodenbaugh. A typical crowd of job-seekers, he says, used to leave several of the 42 computers in the center's resource room free; in the past couple weeks, lines of a dozen or more have been common. The center is bracing for more after Macy's announced closure of its Citadel mall store, with 100-plus employees.
In November, the state's most recent unemployment numbers reported 20,000 jobless in El Paso County, up from 19,000 a month earlier and about 14,000 in November 2007.
The Workforce Center offers help and advice for people making unemployment claims, but can do nothing to process them. As Rodenbaugh talks, two women within earshot report problems with the system. One, a business owner for 25 years, refuses to give her name, but explains that she can neither get through to the labor department nor find a job.
"It's too embarrassing not to work," she says.
After 27 years in Colorado, she says, she'll consider leaving if she can find work elsewhere.
"I've always worked 60 hours a week, at least," she says. "I'm a workaholic."