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Filing for unemployment? Better have a smartphone and patience

Colorado launches rigorous digital verification process to thwart fraud
Some La Plata County residents struggle with Colorado’s tech-heavy unemployment application. (Mike Groll/Associated Press file)

Residents who need to file for unemployment benefits should carve out sufficient time to complete the process, according to several library employees in La Plata County.

The filing process includes a new identity verification process, launched in response to unemployment fraudsters, that requires a smartphone and technical know-how. The process has highlighted a digital divide across the state: Some users can skate through the process, while others, such as older adults or people with lower incomes, spend days or even months trying to navigate the system.

“Do I have words to describe it? It was very frustrating,” said Patty Wright, a 72-year-old resident near Ignacio who has been helping her friend, Charles Paul, 60, file for unemployment.

Paul lost his restaurant job in April 2020 when El Amigo in Ignacio closed at the start of the pandemic. He experiences a few hearing and cognition challenges, so Wright jumped in to help him.

Wright and Paul successfully signed him up for unemployment in 2020 (a process that included a six-week stint on a call-back waitlist).

But with governments doling out increased unemployment benefits because of the pandemic, scammers started to take advantage. Colorado’s Labor Department estimated it has paid out at least $22 million in fraudulent unemployment claims as of June.

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Like more than 25 states around the country, Colorado turned to the new verification service, ID.me, to block the increased fraud attempts.

The Colorado Department of Labor and Employment required all claimants to verify their identities through ID.me by April.

For Paul and Wright, ID.me presented a host of new challenges.

The service asks people to have an email address, provide a form of government identification, use a phone with a camera, verify information via text messages or phone calls, take “video selfies,” establish multi-factor account authentication and provide a Social Security number.

Paul had a smartphone, but he was unable to hear on it and didn’t know how to use it, Wright said. Photos submitted through her phone would link her number to his account. They could file online, but they needed a computer with a webcam.

The pair turned to Ignacio Community Library for help. They spent several hours working on the process on a library computer, only to have the library close.

Wright had never done online videos before, so they turned to ID.me for help on the video selfie, she said. CDLE refers requests for assistance to ID.me.

“The lady on the other end was really nice. I shut her off once and I couldn’t find the microphone. We were off-balance that time,” Wright said. “I’m not up on this computer stuff. I’m 72 years old ... I don’t know a whole lot about computers.”

Even with assistance – and one employee staying after hours to help – it took eight hours spread over the course of four days to finish the verification process.

“He had to go three weeks without any money coming in,” Wright said. “That was pretty difficult for him because he didn’t have any money to pay his bills.”

Employees at the Pine River Library in Bayfield and the Durango Public Library have also seen people coming in for help with unemployment benefits.

“You’d be surprised – a lot of people out there still don’t have an email,” said Sandy Irwin, Durango library director. “There are a lot of people who don’t have smartphones or their phones are not capable of what ID.me is asking for.”

If they needed help, they’re given a phone number, she said. Some people were put on hold for hours, Irwin said.

Nationally, about 85% of people own smartphones. That number is lower for people older than 50, those with a high school diploma or less education, people making less than $30,000 each year and people living in rural areas, according to Pew Research Center.

Durango Public Library sees about two or three people each week who need help. Ignacio librarians help about six per week. Staff members reached out to ID.me and learned that about 86% of claimants get through the process in 15 minutes or less.

“I told him libraries are dealing with those 14% who are part of the digital divide or have other issues,” said Colleen Galvin, assistant library director.

Library staff members felt under-resourced and untrained to help visitors. In Durango, staff members created a resource room for people filing for unemployment.

“If you have a smartphone and you’re really tech savvy, it won’t take very long. But it takes a long time for people who aren’t tech savvy,” Irwin said. “This is taking time for people who don’t have the technical skills to do this.”

smullane@durangoherald.com

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