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Sisolak vows to protect jobless benefits, says claims will be backdated

Updated April 14, 2020 - 8:34 pm

CARSON CITY — Nevada’s unemployment system has staggered under the weight of 300,000 claims filed in the past 30 days, Gov. Steve Sisolak said Tuesday, but the state will issue extra $600 weekly benefits to laid-off workers starting for some as soon as Wednesday.

While briefing reporters at the Capitol, the governor focused mostly on the state’s response to the COVID-19-related surge in unemployment that now affects nearly one in 10 Nevadans. The state processed 79,000 claims in the week ending April 4, more than nine times as many as during the worst week of the Great Recession. For all of 2009, Sisolak said, the state processed 329,000 claims.

“We’re already approaching that number for 2020, and it is only April 14,” Sisolak said. “The system was never set up to handle this volume of calls and claims.”

He said moves to upgrade the system or increase staffing in the aftermath of the Great Recession, when the state’s economy had begun to rebound, were not taken up by lawmakers.

“The reality is this: During the good times, no one can ever imagine it being bad again, certainly not as bad as this,” he said. “I’m not casting blame, I just want to point out that (the unemployment division) has shown that this was needed to be upgraded, and it never got legislative support.”

Benefits for all claims will be backdated to March 15, Sisolak said, the earliest date of eligibility. The $600 extra weekly payments contained in the $2.2 trilling federal CARES act stimulus also will be backdated. The package was approved March 29.

The state Department of Employment, Training and Rehabilitation has expanded from a staff of 70 to 200 and will add another 100 workers, Sisolak said. The division has a revised procedure for filing weekly claims: Those with last names starting with A-K should file on Sunday, L-R on Monday, and S-Z on Tuesday, with other days open to all.

“We’re hoping that provides some alleviation to access,” said DETR administrator Kimberly Gaa, who joined the governor at the briefing.

About 95 percent of claimants have filed online, some 285,000 people, with the rest filing over the phone. The state has paid out $200 million in unemployment claims thus far since March 15. DETR has received more than 70,000 emails and hired an outside call center to help respond to claimants, and is “using every modality to try to reach people and return calls and contacts,” Gaa said.

Other topics covered:

■ The governor said he would base any decisions to ease COVID-19-related regulations, such as business and school closures, on medical advice, not on “what’s convenient or what’s political.”

■ As of Tuesday, there were 340 confirmed COVID-19 patients in hospitals statewide with 59 percent of hospital beds occupied, 10 percent of them by COVID-19 patients; 69 percent of ICU beds statewide are occupied, one third of them by outbreak patients. Just over one-third of the state’s available ventilators are in use, with 39 percent of them helping COVID-19 patients breathe.

■ The state has distributed 1.9 million pieces of personal protective equipment, or PPE. Nevada is in a “yellow zone” in PPE supplies.

“That means our hospitals and health care professionals are getting the PPE they need to do their job. But it also means we must continue to work to acquire more PPE,” Sisolak said.

— Unemployment payments for gig workers, funded by the CARES Act, will take longer to get up and running because the state doesn’t have a mechanism in place yet for processing them and could not start until May.

“We’re working as rapidly as we can to get a methodology in place,” Gaa said.

Contact Capital Bureau reporter Bill Dentzer at bdentzer@reviewjournal.com. Follow @DentzerNews on Twitter. Contact Capital Bureau Chief Colton Lochhead at clochhead@reviewjournal.com. Follow @ColtonLochhead on Twitter.

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