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DETR Rapid Response Strike Force issues 'sobering' final report

Posted at 4:01 PM, Jan 28, 2021
and last updated 2021-01-28 23:46:12-05

LAS VEGAS (KTNV) — Inexperienced leadership and inadequate computer systems.

Too many claims, too much fraud and not enough staff.

In its final report issued today, the Nevada Department of Employment, Training and Rehabilitation Rapid Response Strike Force zeroed in on some big problems in the state’s unemployment agency.

WATCH FULL | DETR provides update on unemployment claims, status of strike force

Though the backlog of regular unemployment claims filed before Aug. 1 has reportedly been eliminated, there are still more than 26,000 newer claims that have been pending for more than eight weeks, and while 16,000 remain in Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, DETR believes all of them are fake.

Fraud is the real "F" word at DETR. It's stymied the system since the pandemic began.

DETR says more applications have been filed than there are people in the state's workforce, meaning hundreds of thousands of fake claims.

13 INVESTIGATES | A recap of DETR and unemployment in 2020

"The fraud that's being seen in unemployment offices is not claimants fudging trying to get an extra week of benefits," said Strike Force Leader Barbara Buckley, "but criminals who have your name, address, Social Security number and date of birth and who are filing claims in real people's names."

DETR says identities are being stolen on a massive level across the country and sold on the dark web.

The agency has tracked most fraudulent claims as originating in Europe.

Last week, Nevada received far more initial PUA claims than any other state in the country: 80,000 were filed on Sunday alone.

The agency says the claims are clearly fraudulent and it's time for the feds to step in and take action.

"The amount of time having to be spent on these cases one by one is truly a problem," Buckley said.

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

"I'm very hopeful that the Department of Justice and the FBI's cybercrime investigators are going to begin taking a larger role," she said, "because the same criminal networks are targeting every state."

The strike force issued its final report after five months of analyzing DETR's difficulties.

Officials don't know how much money has been paid to fraudsters, but they did create ways to combat them, like requiring document upload and identity verification.

"So while much needs to be done to get ahead of these criminal rings, DETR is no longer stalled by these criminal networks," said Buckley.

Leadership, or the lack thereof, is another issue the strike force identified.

"Save for one contract employee, key leadership positions in the Department and the Division were either filled with inexperienced leaders or vacant," she said.

"You can't run an operation in crisis without steady, accomplished leadership at the helm."

RELATED: PUA Problem: Claimant says $15K back payment never landed in account

Every leadership position has now been filled but DETR also didn't have enough staff to process claims. And despite continually adding more, it's still not enough, which will come as no surprise to anyone who's had trouble getting benefits or just getting through the phone lines.

Buckley said, "The response times have gotten better. They are still not where they need to be."

Part of the problem, explained DETR Director Elisa Cafferata, is that "the state and the agency were hit with unemployment numbers that have never been seen by any state ever."

And as each backlog milestone is broken, more claims continue to pile up.

"We do have probably a few more weeks or months to get current," Cafferata said.

As 13 Investigates has reported, DETR's slow, outdated computer system needs to be modernized and replaced.

It relies on complex forms and confusing terms with claimants not getting enough updates.

It's expected to be replaced in the next three years.

Insiders say something else that may need to be replaced is Bank of America as the state's servicer of unemployment debit cards.

RELATED: DETR says it is still working on problems with debit cards, Bank of America

Fraud freezes that inadvertently swept up legitimate claimants remain a problem.

"We send over a list of claims that have been released every day to Bank of America and then they have to unfreeze the cards because they're not our cards. They're Bank of America's cards," explained Cafferata.

"And my understanding right now is that Bank of America does have a backlog in terms of unfreezing cards," she said.

The appeals process is also backlogged with nearly 1,800 people waiting to be heard in Unemployment Insurance and PUA combined.

DETR says it's getting through between 100-200 appeals each week and will add more hearing officers by Feb. 15.

Progress hasn't come without pain but Cafferata says her staff will continue to roll with the punches.

"Despite enduring some harsh criticism, the DETR staff through it all made sure that over $8.3 billion in unemployment benefits have gone out to Nevadans in need."

A few other things DETR has planned include designating a staff member to be a claimant advocate and urging the federal government to give them an early warning on upcoming benefit extensions.

Click here to read the strike force's full report, findings and recommendations.

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