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A worker cleans a pedestrian bridge on the Las Vegas Strip on Wednesday, March 18, 2020, after gaming operations were ordered closed by Governor Steve Sisolak. (Daniel Clark/The Nevada Independent)

As angry uprisings go, Friday morning’s protest outside the Department of Employment, Training and Rehabilitation (DETR) wasn’t much to look at. Fewer than two-dozen persons assembled in a near-empty parking lot dominated by an RV dripping in Jesus-themed banners and a “Trump 2020” flag.

But the gathering gave an out-of-work tour bus driver a chance to vent about what he described as his extremely frustrating attempt to access DETR’s overwhelmed system, get his claim approved, and finally collect unemployment. His misery has plenty of company these days as thousands of Nevada workers sidelined by the deadly coronavirus pandemic converged on the virtual unemployment line.

“It took me a couple weeks just to get into the system,” he said with the strains of Lee Greenwood’s flag-waving classic “God Bless the USA” blasting from speakers. He carried hand-painted signs, one of which read “Show Us the Money.” “I wasn’t even sure I was really in the system, but calling them is an exercise in complete futility.”

Estimated number of times he called DETR?

“A couple thousand.”

His experience is common in the wake of sweeping layoffs and jobless claims in the state now approaching 500,000. Thousands seeking to access the $600 weekly boost provided by the federal CARES Act further exacerbated it. Gov. Steve Sisolak’s reminder this week that all claims are retroactive doesn’t carry much weight with those sweating out a time-consuming administrative appeal. The tour bus driver is still waiting to hear if his appeal was accepted.

In response to the chaos, a call center has been added and this past week Sisolak replaced DETR Director Tiffany Tyler-Garner with former Silver State Health Exchange COO Heather Korbulic, who has experience with crashing technology.

Sisolak thanked Tyler-Garner and said Korbulic would bring “a wealth of knowledge” in the areas of “coordinated project management” and “strategic problem-solving” and probably a few other generalities meant to smooth and speed the transition inside the beleaguered operation.

Tyler-Garner had no experience with unemployment insurance management and may have had her critics at DETR, but I haven’t found any. Front line personnel, the folks who deal daily with the public and the stressed-out system, spoke glowingly of her as an administrator who cared about those she supervised.

“She was truly a great person. God knows who they’re going to get now,” one DETR veteran said shortly before the governor’s office announced the appointment of Korbulic as interim director.

Another DETR employee said, “I feel really bad for Sisolak and our director, Dr. Tyler. None of this is their fault. But they’re the ones having to deal with the poor decisions of management previously.”

And there’s the recurring theme. The state, on bad advice, spent millions for a computer system that was riddled with glitches from the start. Veteran DETR employees still recall how it repeatedly malfunctioned during the training seminar conducted by the company. A series of patches, they said, have made it less likely to crash on most days.

But these aren’t most days. The process in total works too slowly and puts people already under economic stress under further duress.

One DETR employee said the system is actually faster if trained staff takes a paper claim over the phone and then does the computer processing. But that all but circumvents the time-consuming administrative review.

The new call center, they said, has failed simply for the fact those answering the phone are untrained and can do nothing more than redirect the caller. Taking a claim takes training, and training takes time. One DETR employee estimated it takes six months to become proficient.

Which brings us back to our stalled bus driver standing in a hot parking lot on a perfectly good Friday morning. The protest, such as it was, could have passed for a tiny Trump rally, but that’s beside the point. So, for that matter is the response of a DETR spokesperson, who accurately calls the call volume “monumental” and adds that, “The system was not set up for that.”

The question is, why not?

Call volume crushed the DETR system after the Sept. 11-related layoffs. Some adjustments were made and money was spent, but the system remained fundamentally the same. Claimants waited for weeks for their first checks to come in.

And DETR was an anthill of activity during the great recession when Nevada’s unemployment rate soured for month after month. More adjustments were made. Personnel were hired, but they had to be trained in claims taking, and the time-consuming vetting and administration process led to a clogged system that indeed still wasn’t set up for the volume.

Now it’s 2020 and the latest, greatest Nevada and Las Vegas economic boom has gone bust. Amid thousands of active COVID-19 cases, more than 200 deaths, state government is trying to put the health of taxpayers ahead of economic expediency by outlining a multi-phase rollout for business reliant on smaller crowds, social distancing, masks in public, and increased testing and tracing.

Did I mention I saw no protesters wearing a mask or practicing social distancing?

Although a majority of residents appear to understand that they must follow Sisolak’s directive and “Stay Home for Nevada,” it’s obvious that at least one segment of the population has heard the message of the medical experts and refuses to follow it.

It’s going to be a long summer.

“If Vegas comes back, I’m going to be thrilled,” the driver said. “I’m pretty concerned. This town, I think we’re in big trouble. It’s going to be a long road.”

John L. Smith is an author and longtime columnist. He was born in Henderson and his family’s Nevada roots go back to 1881. His stories have appeared in Time, Readers Digest, The Daily Beast, Reuters, Ruralite and Desert Companion, among others. He also offers weekly commentary on Nevada Public Radio station KNPR. His newest book—a biography of iconic Nevada civil rights and political leader, Joe Neal— “Westside Slugger: Joe Neal’s Lifelong Fight for Social Justice” is published by University of Nevada Press and is available at Amazon.com. Contact him at [email protected] On Twitter: @jlnevadasmith

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