They spent hours moderating a Facebook page to help the unemployed navigate a complicated and flawed Colorado unemployment system

The so-called “lady support” disappointed a man who was struggling with his Colorado unemployment claim.

He posted a lengthy, profanity-laden comment in the Colorado Unemployment/PEUC/PUA (Pandemic Unemployment Assistance) Q&A Facebook group about his frustration with the system. But his fussing targeted the wrong person — Erin Joy Swank, a volunteer moderator on the social-media message board who promptly blocked him from the group, whom he cited as the “lady support.”

For the past year, Swank has been one of the moderators in the Facebook group helping people navigate a complicated and changing unemployment system. She doesn’t always have the answers people are looking for, and sometimes becomes a target for those who are angry and frustrated about the payment system. Still, Swank sticks with it.

“It started because I have information and I saw people suffering and I wanted to help,” she said. “I ignore the haters and keep the ones where people say, ‘Oh my God, thanks for the help.’ ”

Bruce Wood, an Aspen ski instructor, created the group in August 2020 as the pandemic continued to cost thousands of Coloradans their jobs. Swank and Karon Killday soon joined as moderators, fielding dozens of questions each day as people struggled with the system.

Nineteen months later, the group has 8,500 members, and messages are posted daily as people try to sort out continuing complications from the unemployment crisis.

Between February 2020 and April 2020, Colorado went from a historic unemployment low of 2.5% to 11.3% because of the pandemic and related business closures. On March 23, 2020, the system crashed when 21,000 people filed for benefits that day.

For many, it was their first time applying for unemployment benefits and they found the system confusing. One simple data entry mistake could lead to a denial of a claim. And it would take months for people to get through to the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment to ask for help over the phone.

At the time, Colorado had a computer system that ran on outdated technology, and was unprepared for such a sudden spike in joblessness. The state finally transitioned to a new system in January, which led to more technical complications.

On top of the state’s troubled computer system, the federal government created new unemployment benefits for gig workers who previously did not qualify for unemployment, and there was a new benefits package for those whose unemployment extended beyond Colorado’s maximum of 26 weeks of benefits.

All of this led to confusion and frustration.

“A really good early warning mechanism”

Wood, a 55-year-old ski instructor and hot air balloon pilot in Snowmass, was among those who applied for unemployment for the first time when Gov. Jared Polis ordered ski resorts to close on March 14, 2020.

“The state system was ill-equipped to handle the volume coming at them,” Wood said. “Everyone was asking questions. No one could get through unless you happened to be the lucky caller. It was like calling through to a radio station contest.

It seemed like a logical next step to create something where folks could share information since no one could get ahold of anyone at CDLE,” he said, referring to the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment.

So he created the Colorado Unemployment/PEUC/PUA (Pandemic Unemployment Assistance) Q&A Facebook group in the summer of 2020 and soon thousands of people were joining.

Those who managed to get through to the state labor department’s call center would post what they learned online, Wood said. It helped people to learn they were not alone in having problems filing for unemployment.

But the group became almost a full-time job for Wood.

Some days, 500 people would ask to become members. And then fraudsters, who wanted to take advantage of the chaos, infiltrated the page. He started weeding them out. And he created questions for those asking to join to detect people who were looking to prey upon the unemployed.

The Facebook group became a resource for the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment officials who administer the unemployment system.

Daniel Chase, the agency’s chief of staff, said he and others at the department watched the posts to learn common problems users were experiencing. Chase’s email address often circulated on the message boards, and his inbox was filled with pleas for help. While it took some getting used to, Chase said those emails helped him identify trends and common problems in the computer system.

“It was a really good early warning mechanism for what was happening,” he said. “We were able to identify a number of problems before they became really widespread and affected a wider population.”

“People needed help”

In late 2020, Swank and Killday joined as volunteer moderators.

Killday did not want to be interviewed by The Denver Post, saying she was content to work in the background to help others.

For Swank, a professional stage manager for theaters, the pandemic entered stage right on March 13, 2020, and closed doors for months.

“In our world, Friday, March 13, is the day we remember as the day Broadway closed,” she said.

Her husband works as a stagehand and she recalled how he had unloaded trucks to help set up an expo at the Colorado Convention Center only to turn around and repack it days later when the state closed all non-essential businesses in mid-March 2020.

Swank decided to help because she claims years of experience in dealing with state unemployment systems across the United States. As a professional stage manager for theater productions, each year she accepts jobs that last through a couple of months of rehearsals and performances. And then she’s unemployed and files claims until she finds her next job.

She has written on her personal blog about how to file unemployment claims. And she talks to students about it when she guest lectures at colleges.

“I already was the one telling people how to get through the system,” Swank said.

The moderators kept tight control on the group’s messages, warning people who post to avoid political rants and harsh criticism of each other. The purpose, Wood said, was to be helpful. And knowing that, Wood and Swank said the time and effort were worth it.

“For me, it was just I created something with a purpose and it was helping people,” he said. “People needed help. It wasn’t about recognition or being thanked or paid. It was creating something that would help in some way.”

 

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