State’s memo to lawmakers highlights thin staffing at agency managing flood of unemployment claims
Anna De Chirico filed for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance on May 16, the first day she could after her fashion jewelry wholesale business flatlined during the coronavirus-related shutdown.
After weeks without receiving the money, she thought she made a breakthrough in unlocking the more than $18,000 she is entitled to when she got through to an operator on an adjudication line on Friday. At the operator’s prompting, she re-uploaded her driver’s license to verify her ID.
But as of Tuesday, an online portal reflects issues on her claim are still unresolved, and she fears she’ll have to once again try calling all day every day to figure out what’s still holding things up.
“My nerves are completely shattered,” she said, adding of her fellow unpaid claimants that “everybody is so distraught.”
De Chirico, 65, is one of tens of thousands of Nevada claimants who are in limbo in an unemployment system that has just a few dozen people equipped to resolve sticking points in claims.
A report produced by the Department of Employment, Training and Rehabilitation and provided to members of the Legislature’s Interim Finance Committee on Tuesday puts numbers on the bottleneck: there are 35 contract workers serving as adjudicators for the PUA program, and they had 1,685 eligibility issues to resolve as of last week. But there are more than 40,000 pending PUA issues to resolve that can only be addressed by a qualified DETR employee — and only eight such employees are working on that backlog.
Asked Tuesday afternoon why more contract employees who man a 100-person general PUA inquiry call center, or DETR employees, aren’t assigned to address the PUA backlog, DETR spokeswoman Rosa Mendez said the question could be brought for consideration at a weekly media briefing on Friday.
But the agency on Wednesday issued this context:
"DETR has eight (8) dedicated Quality Assurance Adjudicators that review eligibility for standard UI against the eligibility of PUA claims to ensure that there is no UI eligibility prior to releasing PUA payments, as is mandated in the CARES Act. While it is accurate that there were 40,000 “issues” this is not representative of claims as each claim can have several issues. Much of the work to resolve issues has now been automated and provides additional filtering to minimize the number of required manual interventions. DETR continues to leverage these PUA adjudicators as Subject Matter Experts in UI law and regulation in order to streamline the PUA systems and processes to release payment as quickly as feasible within federal law. "
Just under 117,000 people have filed initial claims for PUA benefits — which target gig workers and independent contractors who have historically been ineligible for unemployment insurance — in the month since the program launched in Nevada through Friday.
DETR Director Heather Korbulic said Friday that nearly 48,000 had been paid to that point, out of the more than 80,000 who are thought to be eligible. About 40 percent are likely ineligible, she said.
But the letter to lawmakers indicated the vendor had not yet fulfilled a request for weekly reports with details about the number of PUA claims filed, approved, denied and pending adjudication. Nevada contracted with Geographic Solutions to build its PUA system, and outside vendor Alorica to run its call centers, including PUA adjudication.
Regular unemployment backlog
The 85-page document provided to lawmakers in response to their detailed questions also offers a glimpse into the backlog in the state’s standard unemployment insurance system. That program serves people who had jobs with employers that paid into the insurance pool. Nearly half a million initial claims have been filed to the system during the pandemic period alone.
In March, 99.3 percent of claimants were seeing the first monetary payment within 21 days of the first week they were unemployed. But by May, that had slowed, and only 49 percent were getting their first check during that time frame.
DETR said it has responded to the heavy workload by having staff work 12 hours a day during the week and on the weekend, and has logged 13,800 hours of overtime on claims activity alone from March to the present. The agency expects its bill for overtime will reach $2.8 million by the end of July.
The agency has also added 133 new employees out of 147 that it had requested since business shutdowns began in mid-March and has reassigned people within the department to claims roles and called back retirees on contract.
One complicating factor in the staffing ramp-up could be the time it takes for new hires to effectively navigate the complexity of unemployment insurance laws and guidelines. A 2017 Department of Labor study found that it generally took between six to eight months for a call center employee to become proficient in the field, and many states reported in the Great Recession that they could not hire and train quickly enough to meet the demands.
The agency also noted the limits on how many claims an individual adjudicator can process in a work day. Adjudicators who need to contact claimants for information can typically make determinations on 12-15 claims in a 12-hour shift.
As of last Friday, there were 33,310 regular unemployment claims that remained unpaid because of pending issues.
“DETR regularly reviews the list of outstanding issues to try to identify ways to balance the competing interests of prompt and accurate payment,” agency staff wrote. “For some issues, DETR has temporarily changed the system to not hold payment and will automatically cancel the issue. For some issues, payment is held for some weeks, then future weeks are released while the original weeks await adjudication.”
The issues are distressing for De Chirico, who said she’s surviving on savings, keeping to a tight budget and hoping that a Small Business Administration loan she was recently approved for keeps her business afloat. She thinks Gov. Steve Sisolak’s public statements on the matter of unemployment have been “very on the surface.”
“Think of the people who are jobless in Nevada who are really truly struggling, committing suicide or considering doing so,” she said. “Sisolak should think of all the pain.”
Updated at 2:34 p.m. on June 17, 2020 to add statement from DETR on state workers addressing PUA issues.