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martyd | Apr 21, 2009 12:35 PM

Back in 1991 when the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment set up the call center to process people who need unemployment benefits, it seemed like a good way to increase efficiency and prevent long lines at the office. Back then, there were about 400 calls a day.

Fast forward to 2009. "What we're seeing now is 4000-5000 calls a day," says Bill Thoennes, who handles press questions in the office of Government, Policy and Public Relations. With more than 200,000 people out of work in Colorado, the phone system -- and the 100 or so people who are fielding calls -- simply can't handle the volume. Thoennes says more people are being hired, but it takes up to six weeks to train employees so that they can answer questions about the state's employment laws.  

Meantime, people who have questions or problems regarding their unemployment benefits are forced to wait for up to two hours on the phone -- that is, if they get beyond the busy signal.

Colorado's unemployment figure is 7.5 percent -- still under the historical high of 9.1 percent in 1982, and a modest number compared to California's 11.2 percent and Oregon's 12.1 percent, both at historical highs. "It's frustrating," says Thoennes. "We're trying everything we can think of. Some retirees have volunteered to come back to work, and some of the adjudicators are taking phone calls. We just keep hoping the recession will level out."

With an extra 13 weeks of emergency unemployment now authorized, people out of work can receive up to 59 weeks of benefits. Unless they hit what Thoennes termed "the endless brick wall."

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