Unemployment insurance benefits are something working people rarely want to talk about, and most don’t even want to think about.
But in Nevada’s recession-battered economy, job loss rocketed to worst in the nation, and the state’s Department of Employment, Training and Rehabilitation was overrun with claims for benefits. The stinging irony in those hardest days: Nevada’s unemployment offices were some of the few places actually hiring workers.
Nevada’s unemployment picture has brightened but remains high at 9.5 percent. It’s an admittedly unscientific observation, but with the national economy picking up, there’s no longer a crushing sense of doom floating above our gaming tourism-driven state.
That, of course, provides little solace to the thousands of Nevadans still stuck on the hamster wheel of unemployment, filing their weekly benefit claims and looking for work.
Their frustration grew worse in recent weeks when DETR began to transition from its 30-year-old computer system to an upgraded model that holds the promise of increased speed and accuracy while cutting down on claimant fraud. The new system was purchased with $38 million in federal funding.
Although the infrastructure is federally funded, those dollars have been made available in fits and starts even during the recession, when unemployment departments across the country were overwhelmed by need.
“The federal government under-funded the system,” says Maurice Emsellem, policy co-director of the National Employment Law Project.
Emsellem says, “We’re seeing more and more states like Nevada, where there’s all sorts of technical issues that are compromising the ability to process benefits.”
Making the transition has generated its share of challenges. First, the old system had to be taken down, and that meant delays in claims processing for the 50,000 residents currently receiving weekly benefits. When the new system went up on Sept. 4, it experienced downtime.
That’s not all. The long-term unemployed were jolted by a temporary, 59 percent cut to their federal benefits and vented by phone to DETR.
As wait times grew, so did the desperate voices of discontent. The volume became so loud, in fact, that last week Gov. Brian Sandoval issued a statement declaring his concern, and DETR Director Frank Woodbeck increased the lines of communication in the press.
To offset the downtime and demand, unemployment office staff stretched their operating hours to temporarily include Saturday. Computer programmers have been correcting system shortcomings overnight. Although it’s a work in progress, the good news is DETR’s upgrade appears to be successful. Officials are, as they like to say, cautiously optimistic.
Increasing the speed of claims processing is one thing. Unlike its predecessor, the new computer program is capable of searching national databases for abnormalities that are often a sign a claimant is filing in more than one state, Woodbeck says. Previously, DETR staff was tasked with the impossible duty of ferreting out fraud without the tools to be effective.
“Those kinds of enhancements help forestall the filing of multiple claims,” Woodbeck says.
Tales of fraud can be almost as embarrassing politically as they are costly. When state prison inmates finagle a way to game the system and receive unemployment benefits, there’s room for improvement in the area of fraud detection.
Although the theme of unemployment claim fraud is a hot topic on talk radio, it actually accounts for a minuscule percentage of the overall picture. But however small the amount of loss, the director observes, with some $7 billion in checks issued during the recession period, even a small percentage adds up to real money: about $5 million over a recent 18-month span.
“Still, $5 million is $5 million,” Woodbeck says.
Once all the glitches are resolved, he assures skeptics, “The system will be a much better system.”
We’ll hold Woodbeck to his word, but hope we never need to find out for ourselves.
John L. Smith’s column appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org or call (702) 383-0295.