Colorado’s state government leaders knew they — and thousands of the state’s workers — had a problem when the coronavirus pandemic sent Colorado’s economy into chaos in mid-March.

The state had spent, over 22 years, more than $97 million to build a new unemployment benefits system. But when 21,000 people found themselves out of work on March 23, the system buckled.

People could not log on. Or they got bumped off the system. Confusing forms baffled users. Questions about how to file claims spilled over into weeks-long waits to talk to a person at a call center. For many, an unintentional computer error meant long delays for payments as their bills piled up. Fraud was rampant.

“To say we are working off a 30-year-old legacy mainframe built on three-decade old language and we just now are modernizing, it does seem unimaginable that it has taken this long,” Cher Haavind, the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment’s deputy executive director, said. “We agree. We wish we had been here sooner.”

On Sunday, the labor department will launch a new online system for the state’s 265,000 unemployed people to file claims. Since the pandemic’s start, the unemployment system has put $6.7 billion into the state’s economy, helping a million Coloradans pay their rent, electricity and grocery bills while the virus rages on and thousands of businesses remain closed. The need is unprecedented.

Labor department officials knew as early as 1999 that their computer system was outdated and vulnerable. Since then, there have been two failed attempts, including one that was a partnership with three other states, with a combined price tag of more than $99 million in state money.

And the project isn’t finished.

This spring, Colorado’s labor department will ask the General Assembly for permission to spend another $28.4 million out of the state’s unemployment premiums fund.

This latest effort comes with an almost $60 million price tag, Haavind said. But it only replaces the unemployment payments system. Updating the collections side, which is used by businesses that fund the system, will have to wait.

Labor department officials believe they, the Governor’s Office of Information and Technology, which has helped guide the project, and Deloitte Consulting, the giant professional services firm hired to create the new system, are ready for Sunday’s roll out even as they write new programs to meet the latest guidelines introduced Dec. 26 when the president signed a new stimulus package into law.

“I’m really, really excited,” said Colleen Lynn, the labor department’s director of business technology. “I feel like we’re better postured right now than we’ve ever been to go live with the system. This has been a long-time coming.”