Updated August 18, 2020 - 9:19 am
The new leaders tasked with managing the state’s unemployment crisis say they don’t know the extent of the claims backlog.
But they’re 10 days in and working to find out — and tell everybody else, too.
“We just really want to get a good sense of those and then be open and transparent and put it on the website. And every week we would update it,” said Barbara Buckley, head of the state’s new rapid-response effort aimed at working through the Department of Employment, Training and Rehabilitation’s worst problems.
Buckley and Elisa Cafferata, the new acting director of DETR, have their work cut out for them.
Cafferata is the department’s third director since March, when Gov. Steve Sisolak ordered a statewide shutdown to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus. The previous two resigned. Cafferata’s immediate predecessor, Heather Korbulic, resigned June 19 out of fear for her safety.
The department has been flooded with applications from Nevadans desperate for financial relief as the state’s jobless rate, just 3.6 percent in February, shot up to a staggering 30.1 percent in April before it tumbled the past few months, state and federal data shows.
DETR reported that it had received nearly 621,000 new unemployment claims since the week ending March 14, when Sisolak ordered sweeping business closures to help curb the spread of the novel coronavirus. The department reported roughly 398,000 additional claims for the benefits program for self-employed workers and independent contractors, Pandemic Unemployment Assistance.
“There are two systems with two sets of rules and a group of people eligible in one, a group of people eligible for another, and a third group of people eligible for both,” Cafferata said.
She and Buckley represent the new leadership in the ongoing unemployment crisis. Their first priorities are to implement quick system fixes, bolster staffing and beat back fraud.
They identified technical tweaks and a larger staff as immediate solutions to speed up claims processing.
Buckley and Cafferata said they are looking for common denominators in claims that have been automatically flagged to find a way to move them along in bulk.
“Let’s say, for example, we need a tax return filed for PUA, (and you can) say, ‘Just look, is it there? OK, boom. I’m going to do, what, a thousand in two days and get those moving,’ ” Buckley said.
Technical fixes could allow for mass adjudication and faster approvals, she said.
Other issues or categories could include early filers, people eligible for both PUA and traditional benefits and claims needing additional identity verification, Buckley said.
Additionally, the state is identifying ways to increase staff through hiring or borrowing from state agencies. It has already identified 300 potential workers in the Department of Health and Human Services’ division of welfare and supportive services who are willing to work overtime for DETR.
“We’re pushing on every lever we possibly can to help bring staffing resources in,” Cafferata said.
She and Buckley said they are also hearing from retired employees with DETR’s employment security division who are interested in helping and wouldn’t require training.
Buckley said she has recruited volunteers for the task force she is heading, including Anthony Pearl, general counsel for The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas; Steve Fisher, administrator for the state’s welfare division; Vanessa Alpers, a longtime state employee; and Michael Schmidt, senior intelligence manager at Siemens.
‘Fraud is not an excuse’
DETR and state officials have pointed to rampant fraud as a significant roadblock to paying out claims. Many states are dealing with the same issues.
Fraud is as big a problem as it’s made out to be, Buckley said, “conservatively” estimating 200,000 fraudulent benefits applications in Nevada. In court documents produced last month, DETR estimated that between 133,748 and 185,484 possibly fraudulent jobless claims have been filed.
“Fraud is not an excuse to not pay eligible folks, but they clog up the pipeline,” Buckley said. “And they cause staff to spend time they shouldn’t be spending on claims when you have an eligible, deserving Nevadan waiting.”
The state brought aboard Bill Strong, the former chief fraud investigator in the state’s welfare agency, to help “build out” DETR’s fraud unit, Cafferata said. That will take some time to do, but in the meantime, the department is working with the offices of the U.S. attorney and the state attorney general to combat and prosecute bogus claims.
Additionally, the state recently approved language for an automated response that will go out to those who report fraud.
The response details next steps for possible fraud victims and assures them that their report has been received, Buckley said. Buckley said the state is compiling fraud data and will release that to the public.
DETR will work to be responsive to the public in its work, but Cafferata said she knows that the strongest way to regain the trust of a frustrated public is to pay claims.
“Our goal is to pay everybody who is legally eligible and then do a better job of communicating with folks if they don’t meet (those) requirements,” she said.