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Appeals backlog leaves some PUA claimants in limbo as DETR still struggles

PUA claimant Ladan Dillon
PUA claimant Ladan Dillon
Posted at 7:32 PM, Sep 20, 2021

LAS VEGAS (KTNV) — Ladan Dillon speaks four languages fluently: French, German, Farsi and English.

Interpreting for others at conventions, conferences and courts is how she makes a living and supports her family.

"What I do helps people. We are bridges that connect worlds together."

But there's one language she never could figure out... The one spoken by DETR, Nevada's Department of Employment, Training and Rehabilitation.

"At first you would hear, 'These are unprecedented times. We never had to deal with a pandemic.' I get that. I respect that. I appreciate that. But now it's a year and a half later and they still don't have their act together!"

When COVID-19 hit, the self-employed, gig workers, independent contractors and 1099 consultants had no safety net for loss of income in an economic disruption.

Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, or PUA, was developed by Congress to bridge that gap.

"Right now we're looking at about 160,000 folks who got benefits through PUA, so from that perspective, I would say it was a success," said DETR Director Elisa Cafferata.

Ladan applied when PUA first became available in Nevada, which was May of 2020.

"I got an approval letter from DETR and about a week later, they sent me another approval letter with a higher weekly benefit amount."

Seemed like everything was working out... Until it wasn't.

"And then they sent me a disqualification letter. And then again a few months later they sent me another approval letter. And then again another disqualification letter like five months later."

Confusing or inconsistent responses from DETR became the norm for some.

"We have a whole lot of employees here for whom most of their money comes from their gig work," said Cafferata.

Many of those folks have evening or weekend jobs for benefits or stability.

But even if that work hadn't dried up or was just a small part of their actual income, federal rules said they still had to apply for regular Unemployment Insurance and get turned down before coming back to PUA, creating what was dubbed the PUA/UI whirlpool.

"So from that perspective, PUA did not really take into account the reality in Nevada," said Cafferata.

The reality for Ladan Dillon?

"Playing a ping pong match where everybody's just looking at the ball going back and forth and I'm just sitting here and waiting and nothing is happening."

Her DETR account shows she qualifies for more than $20,000 in lost income.

She hasn't seen a dime and the reason for denial keeps changing.

First, there was an I.D. verification issue.

Then they said, "My claim was filed from outside of the United States. Last time I checked, Henderson Nevada is still considered to be inside the United States."

There was also a potential fraud flag and even a claim that her unemployment was not related to the pandemic.

"And where they got this from I have absolutely no idea. There were no conventions in town. There were no conferences in town."

For a long time, courts were closed too, and her work still hasn't fully come back.

"It feels like you're drowning in a pool and you're reaching out for help and you have all these people around the pool sitting on the edge looking all sympathetic with their hands on their chin and pretending to care, and yet nobody cares. Nobody is reaching out a hand."

With DETR offices still closed to the public, Ladan has done everything she can to get answers online and over the phone.

"It takes an act of Congress to get through. When you do, they're not helpful at all, no professionalism, discourteous, and they try to get you off the phone as fast as possible."

When 13 Investigates asked DETR about her case, the agency sent her an email with two phone numbers: the main one she'd already been calling and one for the PUA Adjudication Center.

"When you call it, you get a recording: 'Your call did not go through. Please try your call again.'"

13 Investigates questioned DETR and the agency acknowledged the number they gave Ladan is no longer functional.

"The way DETR has been dealing with PUA is just an abomination," Dillon said.

Like so many others, all she could do was file an appeal.

To date, she's still waiting for a hearing and, she has company.

As of Sept. 7, DETR had 14,478 PUA appeals waiting to be reviewed to see if they can be resolved or need to go through the formal appeal process.

DETR can't tell how far back they go, but says they're working on appeals in the order received.

Just 5,688 have been heard to date.

In the last month, appeals referees issued 906 decisions.

"As of Sept. 6, we have to use our own state employees to make these determinations, which is a much smaller group of people," Cafferata explained.

Before PUA ended, DETR had outside help.

"The biggest support that we've lost is that we had 200 folks from Welfare who were working overtime to help process claims."

Now, it'll be roughly 5 ½ months to get through the appeals backlog.

Staffing shortages aside, Cafferata blames fraud.

"There were one million-plus applications that were imposter claims, fraudulent applications, and we still had to deal with all of those because you have to look at it to figure out if it's legit or not. And so that's where my frustration is. If we didn't have those million claims, we would have stayed current the whole time."

DETR couldn't tell us how much money has been paid to fraudsters, saying the "Data is unavailable and changes often."

They also couldn't say how much of that money has been recovered.

When we asked why Nevada didn't have sufficient security measures to prevent the level of fraud our state experienced, DETR said the hurried setup and self-certification design of the PUA program "Opened the door for ​an unprecedented number of imposter claims that many states could neither prevent nor verify or efficiently audit."

Ladan Dillon has three English words to describe her experience: "Disillusioned, frustrated, angry," as she continues to hope for help that may never come.

It's little consolation to those waiting, but DETR confirms claimants successful on appeal will be paid for all eligible weeks even though the benefit programs have expired.

Our examination doesn't end here as we look at some of DETR's successes and new lifelines available to help people get back to work.

That story Tuesday night, Sept. 21, on 13 Action News at 6 p.m.

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