LAS VEGAS (KTNV) — Nevada’s unemployment agency is still failing thousands of people who can’t get their benefits.
And a recent court ruling against PUA claimants means the state won't be forced to start making large-scale payments.
Nevada Department of Employment, Training and Rehabilitation, also known as DETR, has floated several excuses for the backlog. 13 Investigates talks to experts and former insiders who say it just doesn’t add up.
We all know our state's system is overwhelmed with Nevada having the highest unemployment rate in the nation. But DETR is designed not only to help people with immediate needs but also to protect our economy. So why does it continue to fail so many?
David Day created a Youtube video to illustrate how so many claimants get caught between PUA and regular unemployment.
"I spoke with someone on May 17 from PUA who told me, 'Even though I know that you're going to be eligible for PUA, because you're self-employed and a gig worker, you still have to go through UI [regular Unemployment Insurance] and be denied first.'"
A model of inefficiency, DETR's unemployment system remains an expensive head-scratcher for claimants like David Day. He has multiple letters confirming eligibility, but still, no money.
From DETR officials to a district court judge to the governor, we keep hearing the same thing.
“We know that the state is dealing with an antiquated computer system,” Gov. Sisolak said in a press briefing.
It's one of the primary things they blame for delays in processing claims and getting people paid.
But Steve Zuelke, a former DETR manager who was with the agency for over 25 years, says otherwise.
“I think there's been some excuses that have been made, some circumstances that have been, for lack of a better term, played out.”
In court records filed as part of a class action gig worker lawsuit over unpaid PUA claims, Zuelke says the system, "… is not archaic,” calling it "One of the more modern systems nationwide.”
In fact, DETR's computer system went through a $40 million-dollar upgrade less than five years ago.
But former DETR adjudicator Laura Feher says it didn't help much.
Darcy Spears: “So what did we get for that $40 million dollars?”
Laura: “We got a terrible system. To this day, I mean, it's really not a very good system.”
A former DETR software engineer who asked not to be identified confirms DETR’S IT system is not outdated or antiquated but isn't used well. He says DETR built and maintains the system on just one or two servers, which may be why it needs to be shut down so often for maintenance.
And when it's DETR, ”maintenance" means thousands of people shut out of the system… thousands of potential payments delayed. And it happens a lot.
According to emails directly from DETR, the system was down on April 11 and 18; May 2, 9 and 16; June 6, 20, and 27; July 2, 29, and 30; August 1, 8, 15, and 22.
And those dates don't include all the times we've heard claimants complain the website was malfunctioning or crashing. DETR uses the term "Throttling down."
UNLV Computer Science Professor Andreas Stefik says the outages raise a red flag.
“No doubt that is an extremely important system,” says Stefik, “And so any time you've got something mission-critical to people's lives, there needs to be an element of security in terms of, like, how reliable it is."
And if there's a problem, he says, fix it!
“Well…if they're claiming it's antiquated, why? What's the technical problem that they're having?” Stefik asks.
DETR tells us their system is on an Oracle platform using the programming language Java. That isn’t as old as what some other states are reported to still be using — a COBOL based code that dates back to the 70s.
Still, fixing the system is easier said than done says longtime employee Laura Feher. “After working for unemployment for so many years, I always said, 'if it's logical or reasonable, Unemployment [DETR] is not going to do it,’” she says.
To that point, we've learned DETR already had a system in place to mitigate a crisis. It's called D.U.A. or Disaster Unemployment Assistance.
As court records from the PUA lawsuit show, Congress-based Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, in many ways, word-for-word on pre-existing disaster relief programs.
But Nevada DETR chose to use an outside vendor and build a whole new system.
“I heard that they were afraid that PUA wouldn't become functional if it had to go on to the existing system,” says former Nevada Assembly Speaker Barbara Buckley is leading a task force to clean up the claims backlog.
Darcy: “What about the concept of two computer systems? Why do they need two?”
Barbara: “In the end, in my opinion, we need one.”
Steve Zuelke says it boils down to failed leadership.
“I don't think they have sufficient experience to understand what tools are available to them both administratively and in a technology point of view.”
Operating with two systems makes the whole complicated process even worse, says Buckley. But right now, they don't want to slow payments down in order to integrate.
“That's got to come after the backlog's resolved but clearly that's a problem,” says Buckley. “You can't have two computer systems.”
The Special Hearing Master assigned in the PUA lawsuit, Jason Guinasso, echoes that in this recent report to the court.
He said there should be a "One-stop shop... For administering unemployment benefits in Nevada" with "The same program, process and people" working on claims.
He also said, "Requiring people to go from one program and process to another creates an unnecessary additional layer of administration that is redundant, time-consuming and frustrating for applicants."
David Day keeps waiting for his money and likens it to a dysfunctional family.
“The way that I see it is like DETR is the parents of the household,” says David. “And in the house lives PUA: one child, and UI: child two. Anybody living in the same house, like, why would you not allow your children to speak to each other? You all live in the same house!”
As for the reliability problem, the former DETR software engineer says leadership was warned it was not a question of if, but when the system would crash or be hacked if proper measures were not implemented during the upgrade.
DETR confirms it received $40,987,110 in federal stimulus money that was used to upgrade its technology. And they provided the following statement:
The DETR Systems are highly complex computing environment consisting of multiple applications and hardware components. As with any complex system environment, regular system maintenance and updates are required for optimization; this is a time-consuming process and cannot be performed while the system is in use. In order to ensure individuals are aware, we send out regular notifications to remind people to sign off and then revisit the site(s) after the work is completed.
The UINv integrated benefit, appeals and tax modules went live in 2015. The system is constantly being updated and upgraded for new features, functions and issue resolution.
We found it could actually be more like $45 million, but we're still awaiting answers from DETR on that, why they're calling their system antiquated, and what they've done about it.