Indy Q&A: Barbara Buckley on progress of new ‘strike force’ trying to tackle backlogged unemployment claims
Two weeks after Gov. Steve Sisolak announced a “strike force” to help resolve a backlog of unemployment claims, the head of the effort — former Nevada Assembly Speaker Barbara Buckley — says several key initiatives are getting off the ground this week.
Buckley said she’s prioritizing the claims of those who haven’t received payment at all above other issues such as catching current beneficiaries up on individual missed payments. It was the desperation of some of those unpaid Nevadans, many of whom called her in her current role as head of the Legal Aid Center of Southern Nevada, that prompted her to accept Sisolak’s invitation to lead the strike force.
“My assistant will come in and say, ‘so the guy on the phone, he's been waiting for eight weeks and he needs his insulin and he has no other payment source. What can I tell him?’” Buckley said in an interview on Monday with The Nevada Independent. “I have been so concerned about the growing backlog, and about individuals who are frantic to be paid, and I had been obsessing over it.”
She said the Nevada Department of Employment, Training and Rehabilitation (DETR) is piloting a proposed solution this week that could speed up the process of verifying claimants’ identities. Tens of thousands of claims are held up over questions about authenticity and possible stolen identities.
Fraud has been a major concern, and Buckley experienced it firsthand — someone recently filed a fraudulent unemployment claim in her name. She estimates that there are upwards of 200,000 phony claims in the system, but as with many statistics — including the precise size of the backlog — Buckley said it’s difficult to determine exact numbers right now. Her plan to create an online dashboard to show the agency’s progress in processing the applications is still in the works.
To combat the fraud, the state also brought on a new chief of the fraud unit this week. And to ramp up staffing, DETR is enlisting and working to train some 300 welfare eligibility workers this week to assist colleagues in the unemployment division.
The strike force also includes experts from the private sector. The goal is to offer a fresh pair of eyes on a mammoth task that state workers have been trying to tackle for months.
“I told some of the Employment Security people, ‘Look, you've been inside the house fighting the fire for five months, you're exhausted. Reinforcements are here,’” Buckley said. “So maybe we can just bring a different way of viewing it, and a private sector way of doing something.”
Below are highlights from the interview, which have been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Q: Do you feel like you found any silver bullet to the big holdup?
A: I don't think there's a silver bullet. I think there's a series of things that we need to do to try to reduce the backlog.
We had a very low unemployment rate. I think I heard there were like 10 people working in the Southern Nevada unemployment claims office. And based on the number of new filings it got, it probably needed 500. The depths of it can't be [overestimated]. And the number of people filing — hundreds and hundreds of thousands of people lost their jobs as a result of the pandemic.
What we're trying to do is just bring in a fresh look. What can we do right now? What solutions can we find right now?
We're looking at a couple areas. The first is [whether] there are folks in a similar situation where we can come up with a solution to move on with their cases. I'm going for bang for the buck. If there are 30,000 people stuck with this issue, can we come up with a solution and then move out those 30,000?
One area is trying to identify the true filers, Nevadans in need who do qualify, and to separate them from the fraud. Because there are hundreds of thousands of fraudulent applications clogging up the system. But we want to focus first on who's really eligible and how do we connect them with benefits.
So we have a couple IT solutions that we're piloting this week. I'm really fortunate to have one of the volunteers join me on the rapid response team. His whole background is IT. He's the head of an IT company. He was the former head of it for the U.S. division of Siemens. And so we're looking at data matching and how can we separate out the folks who are in need.
So that's one area we're working at, right off the bat. The other is a private sector IT company that verifies identity. So I think we're going to launch a pilot with that this week to see if that works. And then the other big area is staffing. How can we get innovative about getting more qualified staff on board?
So we've developed a staffing plan already. The first part is retired Employment Security [Division] workers, already trained and ready to go. You can plug them in tomorrow. So we've identified some of those workers to come back.
The second is one of the members of the strike force — Steve Fisher. He's the division chief of the welfare division of HHS. So his division is stable. He's overworked but stable. So he volunteered to join this committee.
He did a poll of welfare eligibility workers who have similar training, to see if any of them would be willing to work overtime. Their response was overwhelming. He's identified 300 people who are able to work on these cases right now.
So today and tomorrow, he's developing a training program for them, looking at what we already have, in terms of training materials, recording it, and then tasking them on certain types of cases so they can quickly move out a couple thousand cases a day or every other day.
I’m sure DETR had its own process for verifying ID before this, but did the strike force find anything that wasn’t being done or a tool the agency didn’t have?
In the pre-COVID world, we didn't have the amount of applications and we didn't have the amount of fraudulent applications ... My theory is that it is a result of one of those big data breach cases where identities across the nation were stolen.
The team never had this level both of applications and fraud. And so these two new things that we're piloting, we're just hoping can separate it out.
And what I keep harping on is anyone who appears eligible, we're moving forward with them. We don't want to resolve all of them ASAP. We want to resolve those who are eligible ASAP. So we're trying to keep that priority in mind.
DETR had previously tried to ramp up staffing with former employees. Did you find that there were a good number who still hadn't been invited back or still weren't being used?
I think what happened because of the press conference and everybody learning about it, we received more offers. And it wasn't that there hadn't been offers before. But I think that the notoriety of it… we received more offers within 48 hours; I got offers from cabinet members, “Hey, can I loan some of my IT staff? I got volunteers. I'm a secretary out at UNLV, can I help?”
We received offers from just tons of different people whose hearts go out to all the people who are waiting. So I think it just helped the effort, just kind of led to a slew more calls and awareness. And of course, then they knew who to call.
We've heard that it does take a lot of time to get staff up to speed. Does it speed up the process to have welfare division workers, for example, because they're already state employees?
They're already trained on similar work. And they already know the state systems; they already know how to log in remotely to the state's VPN. So there’s certain things we won't have to teach them.
The other thing that we're talking about is putting them on strike teams. So for example, if we have a group that is stuck because the employer said they were fired and the employee said they were laid off. OK, this is how we do it: We call the employee; we ask for X, Y, and Z; and then we call the employer and ask for X, Y and Z; and then we reconcile it and just make a decision — because everybody has the right to appeal and have a third party, independent person and look at it.
The worst thing is just to be hanging on. Make a decision one way or the other. So we're looking at whether there are certain people with certain categories where we can train people to be really good at that issue.
I keep preaching: speed, speed, speed. Again, we don't want to give tens of millions of dollars to fraudsters. But these Nevadans have been waiting too long. We've got to get a system in place to move cases along.
Have you gotten a handle on the fraud numbers? That’s a source of skepticism because people don't know if fraud is being used as an excuse or if it legitimately is half of the claims. When are you going to know?
So far, it appears that the amount of fraudulent claims is very high. But we're going to quantify it. And then we'll be releasing the solid numbers to the public so everybody can see what they are.
We're already meeting weekly with law enforcement to make sure that they're getting the data they need. We have a new chief for fraud starting today. He was the chief of the fraud unit for [the Nevada Division of \Welfare and Supportive Services]. So he came back from retirement to help stand it up.
It's not so much an individual cheating issue as much as organized fraud, meaning someone who has filed a bunch of claims using the identities of someone else. And it's not like a one-off, run-of-the-mill street criminal. It's somebody with a lot of it expertise as part of a data stealing ring. It's fairly substantial.
But the bottom line is, it can't be an excuse. We’ve got to solve the problem regardless of that.
At this point, do you guys have a number of fraudulent claims or are you still working on determining what it is?
Conservatively, I've been told it's 200,000. It could be higher.
Aside from ID verification, are there other things CARES Act money might go toward?
We're also going to proceed with hiring permanent workers for the Employment Security Division. This crisis isn't going to stop. And we don't want to clean up the backlog and have it come again. So we need to make sure that we have adequate staff, permanent staff, ready to continue handling cases of people who are going on and off unemployment probably over at least the next year.
What's your sense of how we got here? Is anyone to blame, such as the Legislature failing to maintain the system over time?
I’m not looking in the rearview mirror. I was asked to look forward and fix the backlog. And to figure out what mistakes were made and who made them, you'd have to interview both sides. Ask, ‘Well, why didn't you do this? Well, why did you do that?’ ‘Oh, well, we didn't have more staff because we had low unemployment. And we wanted to give the money to education.’ There might be lots of different reasons. I don't have time to dig into those.
Sometimes I feel like I'm getting pulled into other areas, and I'm saying, OK, how is what I'm doing right this minute helping someone get paid? The single dad, who called this morning to say, ‘I don't know if I can hang on one more day,’ how is this helping him get paid? So I'm trying to resist any calls to do anything else but that.
The rental assistance program is pretty much exhausted in Clark County, and then the eviction moratorium is being lifted, and unemployment payment amounts have gone down. How are you directing people? What they can do now?
We're facing a catastrophic situation. We have hundreds of thousands of people at risk of eviction. We need more rental assistance funding from Congress. We need to turn back on the $600 a month, or whatever they compromise is, if it's $500 a month.
But we can't use a new FEMA system that might be paid, and it might be legal under an executive order, it might not be. We need some certainty. And we need it today. And the clock is ticking.
So I am nervous. I am worried. I am upset about what's coming down the pike. And all I can do is raise my voice to say what I think would help the problem.
Where is Nevada on President Trump’s plan to use FEMA money to increase unemployment payments by $400? Last we heard, DETR was analyzing the cost. Has the state rejected the idea at this point?
(Editor’s note: DETR said on Tuesday that it is still analyzing the cost and “we will make announcement and inform claimants once more information becomes available.”)
That's a question for the governor. I think they're looking into it and figuring out how much it would cost. But again, the complexity of it all leads to uncertainty — getting FEMA involved, and then there's another agency, and then you have to figure out what their rules are. Why does this have to be so complex?
We were at least able to give most people stimulus checks. Maybe we should just give monthly stimulus checks. The first step shouldn’t be to create another bureaucracy and another program. Let's get the money on the street.
The Legislature passed SB3, including a provision to backdate so that folks that maybe lost out on a payment would get that money. How far are we into getting those folks the money that they're entitled to?
Right now we're on the backlog. So the additional provisions, including encouraging the part-time folks to go back to work and have them not lose out on funding — I think those two programs will be in the next phase. First, we need to get the money out on the streets to those who are legitimately waiting.
You are really focused on just those who have gotten nothing at this point?
Yes. That is what I say at the beginning of every conversation. There's a team working on cases that need to kind of true up the right amount of benefits. There's 25 people working on those. I said … ‘Those people at least are getting weekly checks. Maybe the true up work needs to be done, but could it be done last.’
And sometimes you're choosing between bad decisions and worse decisions. But to me, the person who hasn't received a dime needs to be prioritized first.
There's a lot of people who have applied who aren't eligible. They kind of think everybody's getting money, right? They have no UI wages. They've never received a W-2. They haven't worked in a year and a half. And some of those people are not a gig worker, either. So they just think, ‘Because I'm not working, can I get on unemployment?’ But there wasn't a COVID reason for their 1099 loss of work. Some of the requirements that the federal government puts on these programs — I feel bad for them, too, because now for five months, they've been thinking they're getting money and they were never entitled to it in the first place.
So even then, they should get a timely decision so they can move on and figure out, “Should I be applying for welfare? Or I'm just not going to apply for anything.” And I move in and double up with somebody or figure out what their next steps are.
The Alorica call center has been criticized on several fronts. Even the court-appointed special master had recommended getting rid of them if we hadn't been bound by a contract. Are you working on trying to improve the Alorica services?
I'm not. [DETR Administrator] Elisa Cafferata and DETR will be making decisions about Alorica. I'm just focusing on the processes — what processes work? What don't work? And how can we get people paid quicker?
Certainly in my mind having two separate systems for UI and PUA I don't think works very well. And that's because it's one person, but they may be in two systems. In our new economy, someone can bartend two days a week and drive for Lyft. Well, if they have enough wages for UI, they can only get UI and they can't get PUA — another federal government rule.
But what if in one quarter, they don't have enough for UI but they qualified for PUA? We don't want to bounce people around. We want one person, well-trained, to give them a decision and to let them know what it is. So no matter what, I think we need a team of folks who know both systems, are state employees, are able to timely give good answers to people and get them the benefits they need. No matter what, that has to be an outcome of this.
When you guys expect to be releasing a dashboard?
We'd like it to be soon. But then then we run into things like, ‘In the backlog, we don't count claimants, we count issues.’ Well, that's not really helpful. They don't want to know if one person has four issues.
Then we're kind of pushing back: ‘Well, can we count them?’ We have that data. Why can't we say it? What we're focusing on right now is just drafting what we really want to see. And then we'll send it back to the IT folks.
How much of a backlog is there in PUA of legitimate but unpaid claims?
For me, it's really a rough guesstimate. … But the bottom line is, we shouldn't be guessing. We should be finding out who's eligible and then issuing them their favorable determinations. If they're not deemed eligible, get that determination out so that if the system is wrong and human errors occur, get them the ability to appeal.
Is this different than you expected when you were on the outside looking in?
One thing I underestimated — every potential system needs improvement. The computer system, the UI computer system, the PUA computer system, not having enough staff. It's not just one issue that the staff is dealing with. So that's one thing.
The other thing that has struck me as it did in all my times as a speaker [of the Assembly], is how hard the line staff are working. Some of these people have been working overtime for five months now. They bring the cases home with them; they’re worried about the clients, our state. We have some of the best state employees, you know, ever. And they've really been shouldering a lot. And you know, when they get beat up in the press, they take it personally when it has nothing to do with them. It has to do with the system that's not working.
Any message to the claimants who are continually calling and saying it's week 21 without pay?
Every time I hear one of them, it just encourages me to urge the team to hurry. People have waited long enough.