‘We all love someone who’s not working’: Crush of unemployment claims take toll on DETR staff
Annie Cooper (not her real name) said in normal times, she feels like she’s making a difference when she’s processing unemployment claims. But since the pandemic began and the applications began snowballing, she’s had days where her family has had to persuade her to even go into the office.
Cooper is a veteran employee at the Nevada Department of Employment, Training and Rehabilitation, which has taken the brunt of the Silver State’s worst-in-the-nation joblessness crisis. The number of initial applications for benefits since March has topped 800,000, a number equivalent to more than half the labor force in the entire state, and the $4 billion paid out so far this year is about equal to an entire year of the state’s general fund budget.
It amounts to tremendous pressure on the relatively small staff answering phones and making life-altering financial determinations for people who, after making hundreds of calls a day to no avail and fearing the loss of their cars and homes, have reached a breaking point. She’s heard grown men cry on the other end of the phone. Sometimes she joins in.
“More than one person in DETR has had a breakdown,” said Cooper, who spoke to The Nevada Independent on condition that her real name and certain identifying information not be used because she fears for her safety. “Different degrees. Some people it's crying quietly in their cubicle. Other people it's having a big cry fest at home.”
DETR has struggled to quickly process a tsunami of applications while staying within the confines of state and federal laws, adapting to frequently updated guidance and trying to screen out fraudulent or improper claims. Some applicants who are still waiting for payments through the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) program have sued, saying the state is doing more vetting of claims than it should, delaying desperately needed money in the quest to weed out a relatively small amount of fraud.
After a three-hour hearing on the matter on Tuesday, Washoe County District Judge Barry Breslow declined plaintiffs’ request to force DETR to immediately pay large batches of pending PUA claims en masse even if they have been flagged over uncertainty about which program the claimant should be participating in. Breslow said plaintiffs had fallen short of proving the state was being arbitrary and capricious or abusing its discretion.
But Breslow appointed a special master, lawyer Jason Guinasso, to do a top-to-bottom review of how DETR is processing claims, where the bottlenecks exist, whether the website is user-friendly and how the agency is communicating to claimants about their status, among other things. The judge says once he reviews the findings, he may issue an order next week directing DETR to change course in some way.
Plaintiff attorney Leah Jones argued that at current staffing levels, it could take 1.9 years for the 35 contracted staff adjudicating PUA claims to work through the backlog of 139,000 unpaid claims that are held up for reasons ranging from possible eligibility for the state-paid program or use of a foreign IP address.
But DETR said that was an inaccurate assessment of the situation, with automation and varied processing times changing that calculation. There would be no way the state had already paid 107,000 people in the first month if it took that long, according to Employment Security Division Administrator Kimberly Gaa.
In Cooper’s experience, the time it takes to resolve issues on a claim varies wildly. Sometimes she can get through 100 claims a day, but DETR has said adjudicators at times are working at a pace of 12-15 a day if they need to contact claimants.
“It's simple if it's a straightforward claim, but it's also got a lot of potential to get complex,” she said. “Determining monetary eligibility (whether someone has enough wages in the base period to be eligible) — that's legal algebra, really. You've got to go in and do math and every state has a different way of calculating it. So anything that comes up or has potential for unemployment eligibility, that has to be investigated further.”
Trouble can arise when someone has been working in multiple states.
“I might have a claim where I can't clearly see, because the wages in each state are such a low amount, I can't clearly see where they should be filing or where they're eligible or even if they are,” she said. “So I have to go and do calculations on three different states.”
The two sides disagreed on how much DETR needed to do to determine whether someone should receive PUA. Mark Thierman, attorney for the plaintiffs, argued there is nothing in regulations that requires DETR to investigate further if there is nothing obviously suspicious in the self-attested information a claimant provides. DETR says self-attestation is not sufficient to determine a PUA claimant isn’t eligible for standard unemployment, based on Department of Labor guidance from April 27.
Ramping up staffing
During the hearing, DETR staff noted they had requested 147 positions of the governor, had 133 approved, and filled or made job offers on 108 of them. Gaa said retirees were brought on board and people from other parts of the agency were reassigned to work on unemployment.
Agency officials also acknowledged that they needed more than 35 people adjudicating PUA claims and were working on ramping up.
One of the biggest challenges has been how difficult it is to quickly scale up the workforce. The Department of Labor has estimated it takes eight months for someone to learn the ropes of the system; Cooper likes to point to the 21 different handbooks that unemployment claims processors must master — a task that continues even years into a staffer’s tenure.
The state has four ranks for DETR employees, starting with “unemployment insurance representative I” — a trainee position in which a person spends a year on probation because there’s so much to learn, Cooper said.
When they leave their probationary period, they move to the rank of “unemployment insurance representative II,” but are still learning the program. An “unemployment insurance representative III” is an adjudicator, who handles all eligibility issues that don’t have to do with fraud.
Then, there’s a level four staffer, who investigates fraud. There are also supervisors, and some staffers who only work on the issue of whether employer accounts are being charged.
Because standard unemployment is an insurance system, employers must pay tax into the state’s trust fund on behalf of their employees, and their tax rate is pushed higher if they lay off employees and put more of a burden on the system. While PUA draws from the federal government and serves people who don’t have a typical employer-employee relationship, the rules for the regular program, including verifying the circumstances under which a person left their job (an element of determining “non-monetary eligibility”), still apply during crisis time.
“Even if we've got a third of the state unemployed, we still have to preserve the integrity of the entire program,” Cooper said.
The emotional toll
In spite of the backlog of claims, Cooper said she still thinks unemployment insurance is a fascinating and viable program. But funding cuts and position eliminations following the recession, largely because the federal government reduced funding for state-level unemployment agency administration during good economic times, left Nevada unprepared.
“I think unemployment is an appropriate system, if it's properly funded and staffed. It never has been. And it really, really, really wasn't in March,” she said. “I think that if people paid more attention and worked to protect the knowledge and staff that's necessary to keep the program ready when the public needs us, I think that would be perfect.”
Had there been enough investment in the agency in the months leading up to the pandemic, DETR would be further along in its work processing regular unemployment claims “and fewer people would have applied for PUA thinking we forgot about them,” she said.
Her proposal is for the state to maintain surge capacity in a model like the military reserves. Staffers could brush up on unemployment changes and work for two weeks a year to maintain their skills, but not stay full-time with the state unless there was significant demand.
For now, she works up to 12 hours a day and on weekends because she knows how much there is left to do and how each week, the pile of claims grows larger. Last week, another 80,000 claims came in.
Sometimes, exasperated callers unload on DETR staff members in anger. Other times, claimants connect with staff on a human level.
“It warms my heart when under other comments, like in the free flow box, people put things on their claims like ‘thank you for taking the time. Thank you for all the hard work,’” Cooper said. “It just helps to give us a spirit boost because we don't have the time to rest. There's just so much work to do.”
Cooper also wants the public to know that at the end of the day, DETR staffers are Nevadans whose friends and family are trying to navigate the system, too. She said her heart breaks whenever she has to send a claim with issues to be adjudicated because she knows that only means it puts them further back from getting payment.
“We actually know how important it is. We don't get benefit or delight in denying people,” she said. “We all love someone who’s not working.”