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DETR backlog is back as agency faces staffing shortage

DETR
Posted at 4:01 PM, May 24, 2022
and last updated 2022-05-25 00:42:50-04

LAS VEGAS (KTNV) — If you lost your job, the need for unemployment benefits is just as great now as it was during the pandemic.

However, the Nevada Department of Employment, Training and Rehabilitation, the agency responsible for handing out help to the unemployed, is months behind in providing that financial lifeline.

It may sound like déjà vu all over again, but it's creating real concern for those in need and for state leaders.

For example, take the case of claimant Brittany Evans. Evan's daughter is learning to count, and most days she feels her toddler has a better grasp on numbers than DETR does.

"I'm getting told different things from one person and another person and I just feel like DETR should do the correct training so everybody can be on the same page when it comes down to someone's funds and life," Evans said. "This is serious. It's nothing to play with. They have a job. I don't!"

Brittany's been fighting for benefits for six months.

"I lost my job from Bank of America on December 1," she said. "I was terminated."

Instead of getting money from DETR, they say she owes them.

"I don't know how; I don't know why," Evans said.

Her DETR dashboard says she has to pay the state back nearly $15,000.

"I didn't get the funds," she said. "So, whom did the funds go to? Because Brittany Evans didn't get the funds."

Her DETR dashboard shows that she had one payment over the last four years.

"The last time I got any benefits was 2020 and that was only $1,260," Evans said. "Other than that, I haven't received any funds from the unemployment office."

When she tries to explain that to a DETR representative on the phone, Evans says, "they don't want to listen. They don't have any supervisors. And they're no help at all!"

"DETR is in the same boat as most state agencies and many employers, which is, it's a hard time to find staff," said DETR director Elisa Cafferata in an April legislative hearing before the interim Commerce and Labor committee.

"I think we have about 300 positions open at DETR," Cafferata told lawmakers, leading once again to clogged phone lines and long wait times.

"I'm still waiting for the appeals department," Evans said. "They keep telling me they're backed up six, seven months."

That's time Evans doesn't have. She's still looking for a new job, and now, she needs a new place live as she and her four children were recently evicted from their apartment.

"I'm a working mom," she said. "That hurts me to not be able to provide for my family in this time of need due to the fact that unemployment is blowing me off and brushing me off."

Cafferata told lawmakers as of March, there were nearly 33,500 backlogged claims, making it as bad now as it was during parts of the pandemic.

"One of the reasons we have this backlog is we've lost a lot of the assistance and the extra help that we had during the pandemic," Cafferata said.

Federal funding to hire outside contract staff dried up in September 2021.

They also had 200 people from the welfare department helping DETR, but they've gone back to their regular jobs.

"Those folks we are losing because we can't use them under federal rules. They had a year plus of experience processing unemployment claims, whereas the folks that we can hire, they're brand new. We have to train them," Cafferata said.

Claimant Lazaro Valdes has experienced the fallout from that firsthand.

"I spoke to multiple people," Valdez said. "With multiple different answers."

A food delivery driver for Postmates, Valdez was unemployed for several months during the pandemic.

He's working again now, but never got paid for when he wasn't.

"And I feel like I have no say. I've been communicating with DETR and PUA for the longest time," he said. "They technically owe me like $9,900, almost $10,000. But I have not gotten one penny from retroactive pay, the four months that I was unemployed in 2020 or the two months that I was unemployed in '21."

He's been given multiple reasons for the denial and provided all the documents to fight it but can't get a resolution.

"It's like a script," Valdez said. "They say the same thing every time. They say all your paperwork is submitted, just wait for a phone call. Round one, round two, round seven, round 20, okay, when is this phone call supposed to come?"

"I know people need the money right now," Cafferata told lawmakers, "but we have to go in order and get to the folks who've been waiting [the longest] as soon as we can, and there's just no good answers on that."

That answer wasn't good enough for Nevada Senator Roberta Lange (D-Las Vegas), who said in the hearing, "these are people who can't pay their rent, can't buy food, can't pay their electricity, and some of the people that have emailed me have been waiting for over nine months."

Lange asked DETR how they could make people whole again sooner.

"I wish I had a better answer for you," Cafferata said. "We are running out of the legal authority and the money and the people with expertise to do this work. And like I said, this is the most frustrated I've ever been."

Evans has reached a breaking point, "I honestly am just distraught."

For people like her and Valdez, Cafferata's expression of frustration is preaching to the choir, and it's hardly a happy tune.

Since we started working with Evans and Valdez, they've seen some progress. Evans finally got a long-awaited phone call from a supervisor, and Valdez has a hearing at the end of May.

As for the bigger picture, DETR asks state lawmakers to push their federal colleagues for more help with staffing and funding to break the backlog.

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