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COVID pandemic: DETR reform will stem from lessons learned over the last year

Posted at 8:08 PM, Mar 18, 2021

LAS VEGAS (KTNV) — Nevada’s unemployment hit quickly and hit hard.

Many will tell you the state’s unemployment agency did not answer the bell when people needed it most.

So what now? What will it take to make things better?

Some of the solutions seem simple. And just right.

RELATED: Misinformation around Nevada's unemployment benefits coming from all angles

"We all know that we're in the middle of a pandemic, so I think a little bit more compassion from the unemployment office would definitely help when people call," suggested claimant Tammy Meza.

It's a concept that works at all levels.

"The importance of improving customer service and the experience" of dealing with Nevada's Department of Employment, Training and Rehablitation is top of mind for U.S. Rep. Steven Horsford.

Meza, at a grass-roots level, and Congressman Horsford have made it their mission to improve DETR after an unprecedented unemployment rate overwhelmed the system and spotlighted its weaknesses.

"There are so many folks who've been left in the lurch and strung along and are still waiting on appeals and adjudication. How do you feel, looking down from the federal level, that our state has done?" Darcy Spears asked.

"Well, I'm not happy," Horsford responded.

He's taken calls from thousands of constituents seeking help.

FULL SERIES | LIGHTS OUT: The week that changed Las Vegas

"The fact that they weren't able to get through to a live person," he said, "or get an answer or get verification of when their payment was going to be paid, those are all the issues that we seek to address."

Rep. Horsford is co-sponsoring the Unemployment Modernization Act.

"This will ensure that we provide the upgrades to all of our unemployment systems and in fact create more of a streamlined program at the federal level through the Department of Labor so that we don't have this patchwork of systems across the country," Horsford explained.

New programs pushed out during the pandemic came with new rules, requirements and computer coding to implement benefits.

"Every state had to re-program their systems," said Horsford. "It shouldn't work like that."

DETR Director Elisa Cafferata couldn't agree more.

"People think when the law passes, the changes happen," she said. "But that's not how it works. The law passes and then we have to do the computer programming and it's not instantaneous."

New federal law will provide for system upgrades to help clamp down on fraud and make claims processing faster.

RELATED: 'Additional fine-tuning' needed, DETR working on system updates for PEUC benefits

"We're looking at all the things we could possibly do in the interim to kind of speed up the processing and increase the security and ultimately, we're looking at a new system," Cafferata said.

The Nevada Republican Caucus is looking at that on the state level.

On March 11, state Sens. Keith Pickard, R-Henderson and Scott Hammond, R-Las Vegas, proposed the Unemployment Benefit Fairness Act.

The emergency measure focuses on four key areas to help Nevada’s unemployed:

  1. Create deadlines for application processing payments;
  2. Invest $40 million to upgrade DETR’s technology system to help automate applications regardless of program eligibility;
  3. Create a simplified, two-step application process for determining eligibility and scheduling appeals;
  4. Create an office within DETR dedicated to advocating for applicants and acting as their representatives.

Tammy Meza has a proposal borne out of her own experience.

"We need to start a protocol in the system so they can do that end-of-call resolution: keep the claimant on the call until they find a resolution for that particular claimant."

SIMILAR: Lawmakers look at Nevada DETR problem

She knows it'll mean more time on each call but should also decrease volume overall, "So not everybody's calling two or three times a week and getting a busy signal."

DETR's current backlog in regular Unemployment Insurance still tops 41,600 claims.

In PUA, the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program for the self-employed, it's around 41,100.

Tammy's happy to hear all the voices weighing in on DETR's future but says one big voice is missing from the call to action.

"I did a road trip to the governor's office to get some answers, to find out what's going on," she said. "No answer."

That's exactly what 13 Investigates got when we reached out to Gov. Sisolak's office asking him to personally address the ongoing backlog and delays in getting claims processed.

Instead of responding, his office forwarded our email back to DETR.

"I just don't understand how a governor of a state can see that there's so much hurt going on and doesn't step up to the plate," said Tammy, "and say 'I'm going to go into the DETR office at 8 a.m. and I'm going to make sure that we get some issues resolved by the end of the day, and I will give you an answer because I'm governing the people of Nevada. And they need help.' "

TIMELINE: Nevada Dept. of Employment and handling of pandemic unemployment claims

That help could come in the form of a cloud-based system that would allow DETR to make updates and test and implement new program features faster.

Dir. Cafferata hopes the governor might help find funding sources and streamline state rules about purchasing and request for proposals.

She says even with that, they're looking at two or three years to make it happen.

CLICK HERE for a timeline of the coronavirus pandemic in Nevada.

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