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A pawn shop in Downtown Reno, Nev. on Saturday, May 9, 2020. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

About 38,000 people filed claims for unemployment in the first 48 hours of a new program that allows Nevada’s independent contractors and self-employed workers to seek benefits.

Heather Korbulic, head of the Department of Employment, Training and Rehabilitation, provided the statistic to lawmakers Monday at an Interim Finance Committee meeting where funds for implementing new federal unemployment initiatives were approved. The long-awaited new program, called Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA), launched Saturday and helps workers who have historically been ineligible for benefits.

“That was, and continues to be, an enormous technological lift,” Korbulic said.

Lawmakers, who said they have been delivering groceries and fielding tearful calls each day from constituents desperate for benefits, thanked employment department staff for their work but asked about the more than 50,000 unemployment claims that remain held up and unpaid because of pending issues. That’s out of about 441,000 initial claims that have been filed in the first two months of the pandemic.

Kimberly Gaa, head of the Employment Security Division, said the agency has been working to determine what issues those claims may have in common that can be resolved through automation. But she noted that many of those claims are not low-hanging fruit — they have multiple issues that require full adjudication.

“I don’t know that I can specifically say in two weeks, all 50,000 will have an answer and have a payment,” Gaa said. “It just has to do with the claim types and the specifics related to the claims.”

The state has taken steps to ensure that people who are preliminarily eligible for unemployment start getting at least the minimum payments quickly, and more of the adjudication happens while the claim is being paid. That leaves some risk for overpaying claimants.

Lawmakers urged employment staff to prioritize the claims that came in first.

“If we’re going to err on the side of making sure people get money so that they can survive, I would hope we would figure out how to err on the side of those 50,000 folks, even though they’re complicated claims, so that they can get where they need to be also,” said Democratic Assemblywoman Maggie Carlton.

Legislators also raised questions about the legal basis for allowing a contract vendor, call center operator Alorica, to handle not only the application and customer service functions for the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program but also the adjudication role — the process of confirming claimants’ eligibility.

Korbulic said that Indiana had used the same language as Nevada in seeking a waiver that allows “non-merit” contract staff to do the technical work that state employees usually perform, and Indiana had its waiver approved by the U.S. Department of Labor. She said the work will return back to state employees once the PUA program expires after December.

Carlton said she hoped the move away from bona fide state employees doesn’t set a precedent of subcontracting state jobs. Korbulic had affirmed that any errors the subcontractor makes, such as denying a person benefits they are rightfully owed, are ultimately the responsibility of the state agency.

“We need to be able to control the folks who are making these decisions over the people’s lives,” Carlton said. “We’ve seen in the last two months how important this function is to promote survival.”

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