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State Senator Julia Ratti speaks with Secretary of the Senate Claire Clift on Sunday, Aug. 2, 2020 during the third day of the 32nd Special Session of the Legislature in Carson City. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

Nevada lawmakers who say they’ve been inundated with pleas for help from constituents sorted through a bill Sunday night that they acknowledge isn’t a silver bullet for the state’s unemployment backlog, but could ease some of the system’s bottlenecks.

After hearing details of SB3, and then emotional testimony from public commenters on the phone lines who are in dire straits after going months without benefits, lawmakers voted unanimously to pass the bill out of the Senate Committee of the Whole and to the full Senate. 

“It is not a magic pill. I don't think that in any of this …there's a magic pill that's going to solve it all at once,” said Democratic Senate Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro. “But I think that the flexibility that is provided here, the additional extension of benefits, is meaningful and is not something that we should take lightly or take for granted.”

The state has taken in about 1 million initial applications for unemployment benefits this year and has paid hundreds of thousands of claimants. With a labor force of less than 1.5 million, a significant but still undefined number of the claims are thought to be fraudulent, duplicative or brought by ineligible people. 

But thousands of others have gone unpaid for a variety of other reasons, including computer glitches and delays in DETR staff determining eligibility, with claimants struggling to get through to the agency on the phone lines to resolve the issues.

The bill would allow people to work more hours before they are deemed to make too much to be eligible for benefits, which would allow more people to take advantage of any federal bonus payment that Congress might enact after the recent expiration of the $600-per-week Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation add-on. It also makes changes allowing Nevada to tap into an additional seven weeks of federally funded payments once claimants exhaust earlier benefits. 

Going forward, the bill will allow the Nevada Department of Employment, Training and Rehabilitation (DETR) to disregard vacation cash-outs or other income that is counted toward a person’s eligibility, but often delays payments for weeks because it sends their claim to an adjudication process.

The measure also gives DETR more flexibility to create temporary, emergency regulations on issues that arise going forward, and calls on the agency to define what’s a “good cause” to turn down a job offer and still receive benefits. That issue has been a sticking point in the era of coronavirus, with employers wondering if people who turn down an offer to return to their job are doing so to stay on their benefits or because of a COVID-19 reason that rises above the level of a generalized fear of catching the virus.

SB3 offers suggestions on how DETR might define “good cause” for a worker to reject an offer of employment during the pandemic, including:

  • The employer can’t allow the employee to work from home even though they’re considered high-risk for COVID-19
  • The person is sick or in isolation because of COVID-19
  • There is an unreasonable risk for exposure to COVID-19 in the workplace
  • The person is staying home to care for a relative sick with COVID-19, or is in quarantine
  • The person is “caring for a child who is unable to attend school or a chile care facility because of COVID-19
  • The person is 65 or older
  • The person has any other circumstance determined to be a “good cause”

Asked how she would ultimately write the regulation on the matter, Employment Security Division head Kimberly Gaa said she would have to run the language past the Department of Labor to ensure it complies with federal guidance and the CARES Act. 

Francisco Morales, the staff member for Gov. Steve Sisolak’s office who presented the bill, said other states have issued similar guidance, and doing so could help DETR staff when they make case-by-case determinations about whether a person should be allowed to remain on unemployment benefits.

“Folks want to get back to work and they want to keep their job,” he said. “And really what this is intended to do is to allow [so] folks don't have to choose between their job or their life.”

The provision about schools drew concern from some, including Republican Sen. Keith Pickard, who asked whether the regulation would then encompass every parent whose child is now doing distance learning because of the pandemic.

“I'm really concerned with what this will do financially to the state,” he said.

But Morales agreed when Democratic Sen. Yvanna Cancela framed the issue another way:

“This would not create some blanket prescription whereby, because students aren't able to attend a physical building of school but are doing distance learning, that that individual caring for them would then not go back to work,” Cancela said.

In the end, lawmakers expressed frustration that they have been unable to resolve the unemployment benefits problems that many constituents have brought to them, and concern that even the bill would not address the many complaints heard in public comment because it will not retroactively remove some of the stumbling blocks that are holding up claims. 

Some suggested it should have been taken up in the first special session in July, or even earlier.

“We have families who have faced food insecurity, potential homelessness. We heard someone who they're talking about ... trying to commit suicide, and we haven't acted fast enough,” said Republican Sen. Heidi Gansert. “So I'm sorry for all those people who are out there who are struggling … I really think that we need to do more.”

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