Strike force concludes work, says backlog of PUA unemployment claims can be cleared in two weeks
A strike force tasked with helping the Nevada Department of Employment, Training and Rehabilitation (DETR) with a crushing backlog of unemployment claims says it believes a backlog of regular claims that are more than eight weeks old can be processed within two months, and a backlog in a gig worker program can be cleared in less than two weeks.
Officials working on the strike force initiative — which involved outside experts and people with private sector experience trying to solve problems with the unemployment system — briefed reporters Thursday morning on a 38-page final report they are issuing as their nearly six months of work comes to a close.
They also offered up long-elusive statistics on the unemployment claims backlog: there were 217,197 claims to the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) program for the self-employed pending on Aug. 1, around the time the strike force stepped in, and there were 16,874 remaining as of Monday. None of those remaining claims have documents uploaded and therefore are considered possibly fraudulent, officials said.
"While challenges remain, I am proud of the work of the Strike Force, DETR leadership and employees, and [welfare] employees to tackle these issues head-on, and am confident that DETR’s current leadership can carry forward the Strike Force’s progress," Gov. Steve Sisolak said in a statement.
Within the regular unemployment system, there were 26,470 unresolved claims that were thought to be eligible for payment as of Aug. 1, and there were none in that pending category as of Monday.
One of the strike force’s main initiatives has been enlisting welfare division workers to put in an extra 20 hours a week on overtime to help work through backlogged claims. Those workers were responsible for resolving 88,064 PUA claims, according to the report.
The welfare workers will continue working on DETR issues as the strike force steps back. Strike force leader Barbara Buckley, who is head of the Legal Aid Center of Southern Nevada and is the former top-ranking member of the Assembly, noted the strike force has been around months longer than initially planned.
“We were planning on sticking around, studying the system within 60 days, 90 days, but honestly one of the biggest problems facing the system was a lack of staff power, and being so far behind,” she said. “So our team decided to stick around … and not just have this study be put on a report, but actually be implemented.”
Continuing issues with backlog
While the initiative has resolved thousands of claims from earlier in the pandemic, large numbers of claims continue to accumulate. PUA is grappling with a deluge of applications for benefits, including nearly 112,000 new applications that came in just last week — a record weekly claims figure that accounts for more than a quarter of all PUA applications submitted nationwide and is thought to consist in great part of phony claims.
Buckley described unemployment systems as “besieged” by fraudulent actors using stolen personal information obtained off the “dark web” to try to file claims.
“For the first time, the fraud that is being seen in unemployment offices is not a claimant fudging, trying to get an extra week of benefits,” Buckley said, “but criminals who have your name, address, Social Security number and date of birth, and who are filing claims in real people's names.”
She said DETR is developing ways to cope, including by implementing new technology that legitimate claimants can use to prove their identity, and with the strike force cross-referencing the list of claimants to other databases to determine authenticity. But the problem goes beyond just the agency.
“All state systems will have to get ready. Private sector systems will have to get ready, because of the massive level of ID fraud that is going around our nation,” Buckley said. “So while much still needs to be done to keep one step ahead of these criminal rings, DETR is no longer stalled by these criminal networks.”
The strike force estimates that there are 183,199 PUA claims that have been pending for more than eight weeks, and only 7,709 in that group that include identity documents and may potentially be eligible for payment. Strike force officials recommend a mass denial of PUA claims that still have no documentation as of Feb. 7.
While the state has received nearly 1.8 million initial claims for benefits since the pandemic began — and denied hundreds of thousands of them already for lack of identification and other issues — it has paid out at least once week of benefits to more than half a million people as of Dec. 31. The number of people paid is approximately one-third of the state’s total labor force.
Staff more than triples
The strike force’s report says that DETR headed into the economic crisis with a combination of inexperienced leadership, vacancies and understaffing.
“You can't run an operation in crisis, without steady accomplished leadership at the helm,” Buckley said. “Since that time, every leadership position has been filled.”
When the pandemic hit, the Employment Security Division had 181 employees, Buckley said. By August, there were 362 employees, plus contract staff through Alorica who fielded PUA inquiries.
Now, there are 766 staffers working on claims. The strike force recommended ways to ensure the state is ready for any future surges, including cross-training welfare eligibility staff in unemployment assistance, keeping manuals updated and recording training sessions.
Another recent challenge has been staffing up to handle appeals from people who are contesting their denial of benefits — something that ramps up after large-scale denials.
Buckley said another 10 staffers are expected to be added next week to help with those quasi-judicial proceedings. About 900 requests for appeals are waiting to be scheduled in the regular unemployment program, and about 900 are waiting to be scheduled in the PUA program.
The state is getting through 100 to 200 appeals per week, Elisa Cafferata said.
Computer system and reporting problems
Asked about how DETR would deal with continual problems of clogged phone lines, Buckley said that if communication improves through press releases and other channels, it will reduce the need to call.
The strike force is also recommending an automated chatbot feature that can help field frequently asked questions without the need for a phone call.
But sometimes larger forces dictate the call volume — Cafferata said that when Congress changes the unemployment programs and add weeks of eligibility or bonus payments, the phones light up with callers wondering when the money kicks in.
“That sort of overwhelms the call center for a while,” she said. “So if the program features will stabilize and we can just be paying people's benefits, that's going to help.”
It doesn’t appear, however, that DETR will be able to fulfill an early strike force promise of creating an online dashboard that shows how many claims are in what stage of processing. Buckley said such tallies have to be done by hand because the system counts how many issues a claim has rather than how many claims exist — a data format that is largely indecipherable to the general public.
“It just proved impossible to do that regularly,” she said.
Buckley said her recommendation would be that such updates come periodically rather than weekly. Cafferata said DETR may be able to report other figures to show the agency’s progress, such as which week of the backlog they are processing.
The strike force is recommending a greater focus on the claimant experience. Buckley acknowledged the system’s forms and instructions can be confusing, PUA and the regular unemployment computer system are entirely separate and do not interface, and there are not enough updates provided to claimants.
Some of the proposed solutions are a “business process review” to examine each step of the process, and to have an actual claimant look at the forms the agency uses to provide feedback on how clear they are.
The strike force also wants to create a liaison position with a staffer who will advocate for and communicate with claimants. The report highlights the benefits of communicating with the head of a Facebook group that thousands of PUA claimants had joined to seek advice from each other.
While adding an entirely new position takes time because of the state’s hiring process, Buckley said DETR has identified someone who is willing to take on those tasks initially, and the position will be a point of discussion with the governor’s office.
Implementing benefit extensions
Congress in December approved extensions for several unemployment programs, but they were signed into law after programs had already lapsed. The timing left a gap, and many programs remain partially implemented a month after federal approval.
Cafferata said one significant issue is trying to ensure people who have been unemployed long-term can take advantage of all possible weeks afforded by the extensions in various programs.
DETR is trying to balance an 11-week extension in Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation (PEUC), a program that provides benefits to people who have exhausted an initial round of regular unemployment benefits, with a separate state extended benefits program that serves people who have exhausted two prior tranches of benefits including PEUC.
“We're still working with the Department of Labor so we can implement the Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation … without cutting into or eliminating some of these state extended benefit weeks that claimants can get,” Cafferata said. “The worst part, of course, is the people who are in those lines are the ones who are exhausting their benefits and really need us to answer that question. But we can't answer it by ourselves.”
The state also needs to reprogram its computer system to comply with new, more stringent restrictions that will apply to first-time PUA applicants. More documentation is now required of claimants in the gig worker program, which has been particularly susceptible to fraud.
The state has been accepting new applications to PUA while the programming is in progress, but still needs to take additional steps of verifying them.
Buckley said she’s learned how arcane and complicated it can be to run a program like unemployment that is so entwined with the federal government. New memos often come from the federal government that change operations, for example.
“You can't do things unless the Department of Labor says you can do them. And Congress and the president, by waiting — it makes it extremely difficult,” Buckley said.
The strike force is recommending that any future changes Congress makes — such as a lengthy extension of PUA that is under discussion — be done well in advance to allow time for programming and to obtain clear direction from the federal government.
“if you're going to do it, do it now. Allow that computer programming to be done now, so that any problems and reprogramming don't cause delay and benefits. Allow the guidance to come out,” she said. “This kind of, ‘Oh, let's extend it for a month’ process is really hurting states, and it's really hurting claimants, and it can be avoided.”
This story was updated at 7:40 p.m. on Jan. 28, 2021 to add more detail from press briefing.
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