State’s unemployment insurance program adding staff, capacity in response to COVID-19 surge in claims

Riley Snyder
Riley Snyder
The Nevada Legislature building

Nevada’s beleaguered unemployment insurance system is continuing to add staff and enter into contracts to deal with the state’s backlog of unemployment claims amid the economic crunch caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Staff of the state’s Department of Employment, Training and Rehabilitation (DETR), including new Director Heather Korbulic, briefed state lawmakers on the agency’s actions to address the backlog of claims and complaints about accessing the system during a meeting of the Interim Finance Committee on Thursday.

Korbulic, the former head of the state’s health insurance exchange who was appointed to the director position on Wednesday after the resignation of former director Tiffany Tyler-Garner, said the agency recently signed a contract with a vendor to provide Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (aimed at giving unemployment benefits to gig or contract workers not eligible for normal unemployment) and would likely be able to roll out that system by mid-May.

“I think we have an incredibly competent team made up of civil servants who are not only professional but extremely committed to each and every single claim that we're working through,” she said. “They're working tirelessly right now to build this plane mid-flight.”

Pressure on the state’s unemployment insurance system has grown significantly during the COVID-19 pandemic and related state shutdown of nonessential businesses. More than 393,000 initial unemployment claims were filed between March 8 and April 25, a figure that represents about a quarter of the state’s workforce.

The Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) program is designed to offer unemployment benefits (up to $600 a week) to independent contractors and others unable to qualify for normal unemployment insurance benefits. Because the new, federally created program is separate from the normal unemployment system, Korbulic said it needs to be developed outside of existing DETR programming, hence the delay. 

At least 25 states have begun accepting PUA unemployment applications, according to CNBC, with 21 already paying benefits through the program.

Korbulic and DETR administrator Kimberly Gaa also said the agency was working to contract with a vendor to move to a cloud-based phone system to relieve “the pressure on the state infrastructure that is clearly not able to handle the volume.”

Officials said the agency was continuing to add staff to answer phone calls and assist with pending or backlogged claims. Gaa said a significant part of a $5.3 million federal grant to assist with state unemployment insurance administration was being eaten up by salary and overtime costs, as the agency has already accrued more than 9,000 hours of overtime in the past month. 

Typically, federal funding is used to pay for administration of state unemployment systems and works in a cyclical fashion, meaning funding decreases as the economy improves. DETR officials told state lawmakers during the 2019 session that projected budget cuts would leave the agency (and its call center) unprepared to respond to the next economic recession.

DETR economist David Schmidt also told lawmakers on Thursday that the state’s unemployment trust account — which pays out benefits and is funded through a tax on employers — has enough funding to continue payments for about four months until it runs out of dollars. Prior to the pandemic, the account had more than $2 billion in reserve.

Korbulic acknowledged that the agency’s workload had increased exponentially since the COVID-19 pandemic; daily call volume is now at the same level of monthly call volume before the pandemic.

State lawmakers said they have received many calls from constituents complaining that they were not able to get through to the unemployment insurance division and continued to have issues with their claims. Committee Chair and Democratic Assemblywoman Maggie Carlton said the agency needed to continue communicating with lawmakers and the public on its progress addressing issues with the unemployment system.

“This is a very passionate issue,” Carlton said. “We have neighbors and families who are struggling right now. And they don't see the help on its way. And that's where the stress is coming from, they don't have much help.”


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