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A nearly empty sportsbook at Wynn Las Vegas on Saturday, March 14, 2020. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

State officials say five new referees began hearing appeals in the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) program on Monday in an effort to tackle a backlog that is nearly three times the number of hearings that have been conducted to date.

The Nevada Department of Employment, Training and Rehabilitation (DETR) released statistics this week about the workload of appeals, which are challenges of the state’s decision to deny benefits to a PUA claimant. DETR said Sunday that 710 appeal hearings have been completed since those started happening in November, 49 are scheduled for a hearing and 1,890 are waiting to be scheduled.

The state has received nearly 1.1 million PUA claims through last week, and several hundred thousand have been denied. But advocates for the unemployed say the slowness of appeals for those who believe they were wrongly rejected is among their top concerns within DETR right now.

“I feel like there's been people that have been sitting in appeals since July of last year that have not been heard,” said Amber Hansen, administrator of a large Facebook group for PUA claimants. “A lot of these people's appeals are simple things, or are a totality of being a victim of programming and software updates.”

A lawsuit against DETR over issues including a lack of a speedy appeal process for PUA claimants is still pending before the Nevada Supreme Court.

Las Vegas resident James Godde is one claimant stuck in limbo. A former Uber driver who did a little substitute teaching before the pandemic, Godde was denied in the regular unemployment system and then moved into the PUA system. 

Even though his portal tells him there are no unresolved issues on his claim and ostensibly nothing to appeal, he hasn’t been paid, and he said people who pick up the phone at DETR tell him he’s in the appeals bucket. He’s emailed an appeals address, Gov. Steve Sisolak, DETR Director Elisa Cafferata and sent 27 communications through his claimant portal, to no avail.

“It’s nice to hear from them and they’re cordial,” he said of the calls he’s received from DETR-affiliated staff about his claim, but “90 percent of them didn’t know how to take care of that business.”

Godde, 70, believes he’s owed about $20,000 for 40 weeks of PUA. He’s scraping by on a small pension from a decade he worked as a teacher in California, pinching pennies at the grocery store and putting off car repairs to save money.

The experience has been “extremely frustrating and depressing,” he said.

DETR did have some positive news for claimants over the weekend. Two months after the passage of Congress’ late-December COVID relief bill that added an 11-week extension to PUA, the agency said eligible claimants should see extra weeks in their portal now.

Officials also said two welfare appeals referees are expected to begin work on the appeals backlog in March, beyond the five new hires starting this week.

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What Happened Here: A six-part series on COVID-19 in Nevada

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