DENVER - Colorado's unemployed have complained for years about the service they receive from the Department of Labor and Employment when filing claims, but the CALL7 Investigators found some department employees are accessing sports, news, shopping and social media websites on state computers.
The Labor Department maintains there is no connection between website hits and delays in customer service. They could not provide, however, information about who was responsible for which website hits or how long each hit lasted.
Cesar Gevert lost his job five months ago and has spent hours trying to file for the benefits he is due.
"For 2 1/2 weeks I called every day," said the father of two young children. "I would spend two hours a day trying to reach them and no one would ever answer. It's impossible to deal with. I mean, you can never talk to anyone."
The CALL7 Investigators requested the websites visited by labor department employees from November 2012 through January 2013, finding millions of hits on websites that do not appear to be work-related.
We found 453,000 hits on Facebook, 242,000 hits on Twitter, 151,000 hits on YouTube servers and nearly 109,000 hits on sports websites.
Labor department spokeswoman Cher Haavind said some of the social network hits could originate from divisions investigating possible fraud, researching industries or looking into other complaints, but didn't know for sure.
We also found employee computers connecting to access the Victoria's Secret lingerie site 3,000 times, but those attempts were all blocked by state software. Other sites include 2,000 hits the Perez Hilton celebrity gossip site and gossip site Celebitchy as well as 30,000 on Craigslist and 1,000 on Overstock.com.
Haavind pointed to the interconnected nature of servers on the Internet and pages that automatically refresh themselves as possible causes for some of the hits, but didn't know for sure.
When we told Gevert about our findings, he was appalled.
"It says to me that they're not doing their job and their managers are not doing their job," he said.
But Haavind said there is no connection between employee Internet use and long wait times for service.
"If the story is designed to make a correlation between the report you're looking at and three-hour hold times, it's not an accurate correlation because the call center agents are not abusing the Internet," she said.
The Labor Department had already run a similar report, compiling data for a single month and were able to extend the program to find data for three months. When the CALL7 Investigators asked for more detailed information about when the employees are using the sites, which employees and how long, the department said it would cost hundreds of dollars to determine those details.
The department policy allowed web use only for work-related functions, but Haavind said allowing some personal web usage helps keep employees, who are paid with taxpayer dollars, happy.
"Allowing our employees to use the Internet during lunches and breaks actually contributes to increased morale and that increases productivity," she said. We are "not micro-managing a work force."
But Haavind had trouble explaining some of the visits to movie and video websites like Hulu and Netflix.
"I think you're making a correlation to number of hits on a site and how much time's spent on a site, and that's not the case," Haavind said.
"Why would you want to go to these websites if you're not going to watch a video?" CALL7 Investigator Keli Rabon asked.
"I can't answer that," Haavind said.
But she did concede that it may be time for the department to block shopping websites the same way the state blocks pornography, gun and gambling websites.
"Well, we don't restrict online shopping," she said. "We have considered that and will likely add that as a category that's restricted."
Haavind notes the department is hiring more customer service employees.
She also said six employees computer histories have been investigated, resulting in two terminations. She was unable to elaborate on what happened to the other four employees, citing personnel issues.
Haavind said it is not worth the time to determine who used what website at what time, because employees have supervisors.
"If an employee is not performing, then their manager knows they're not performing," she said. "And so to audit 1,100 users really isn't the best use of our resources, when we need to worry about network security."
"This is something you do at home, you know," said the Arvada resident who finally received his first unemployment check last week. "It's not something you do at work. And for someone from the Department of Labor to say its 'okay' ... I think that person should be held accountable over it."
Haavind said the reasons for long wait times is an antiquated phone system, insufficient staffing and an extension of benefits that has the department dealing with some unemployed people for more than a year.
*Editors note: A previous version of this story indicated that employees computers had given Colorado Public Radio one million hits and said that would average 14 hits per employee, per work day. Subsequent information provided by the Department of Labor and Employment shows a single computer running continuously could rack up approximately 9,000 hits in a single day. 7NEWS elected to remove the related paragraph and analogy.