LAS VEGAS (NV) — Key pad tones, busy signals, recorded messages, hold music... The familiar and frustrating sounds of trying to get your unemployment claim resolved.
Another familiar sound… promises things would get better.
"We can't have calls to a call center person who doesn't have the ability to fix a claim. That's a waste of time. That's a waste of resources," said DETR Rapid Response Strike Force Leader Barbara Buckley in August.
A month later, in September, DETR Director Elisa Cafferata said, "We should be able to get to folks on the first call through or get back to them on the same day."
Those promises ring hollow for people like Diana Nelutescu.
Her kitchen wall calendar is a collection of meticulous notes chronicling promises of progress and deadline dates from DETR -- action that didn't happen and money that didn't come.
"I understand that they're flooded, but there needs to be a better way," Nelutescu said.
She's been waiting since May for the approximately $18,000 she's been approved for.
Like thousands of PUA claimants covered by the class-action lawsuit before the Nevada Supreme Court, Diana's been fighting a no-win battle to prove who she is.
She got one of the blanket denials detailed in the lawsuit, saying she was being investigated "... For one or more of the following reasons: The Division was unable to authenticate your identity; your claim was identified as being filed from a location outside of the United States; or ... as being associated with suspicious activity..."
"There were like three different things that were so absurd," Nelutescu said. "And so that's when I'm like, this is crazy! DETR sends me a qualification letter and they tell me everything's fine for months and months and months and tells me to keep waiting and then I get that crazy letter."
Fed up, Diana called DETR, sat on hold for a long time and eventually got through.
"So I said, I'm going to record the phone call to have proof going forward that hey, this is what was said, yet you guys keep telling me this -- you're backtracking and telling me a totally different story."
When a DETR rep who identifies herself as Sheila answers the phone, the first thing she does is put Diana back on hold.
"I'll be right back," Sheila says. "I need to put you on a brief hold while I finish up notes from a previous call."
Bewildered, Diana holds. Again.
When Sheila returns, Diana discusses the disqualification letter with her, saying, "Location outside the United States? That's not true. I'm in Vegas. I did it from here. And it says, 'Suspicious activity.' There's nothing suspicious that happened on my account."
She'd previously uploaded everything she had to confirm her identity.
"I provided all bank statements, tax returns, income, back and front of I.D., Social Security card," Diana said.
The DETR rep asks about a third-party email from ID.me asking to confirm Diana's identity, which Diana didn't get as she already told another rep in a prior phone call.
"What I'm going to do at this point is I'm going to escalate your claim through to my supervisor. Because you do have all your documents uploaded," Sheila said. "I’m going to also notate that the ID.me email you still have not received. I'm not sure if they’re going to re-send it or if they’re going to go based on the documents that you submitted for identification already. So hang tight and somebody will get back to you."
Diana says it's almost like hitting the lottery when you get through to a person, but her recorded phone call shows even when you do, you're not getting someone who can help you.
"I'm just getting the same Groundhog Day answer. You're fine. Everything is in great standing. You just have to wait this many days. And every time there's a new deadline that I have to wait for."
We took her concerns to DETR Director Elisa Cafferata.
"When Alorica's contract was terminated, there was a lot of hope that things were going to get better and that people would be able not only to get through, but to get through to somebody who could be a one-stop shop and actually resolve their claim," said 13 Chief Investigator Darcy Spears. "The folks who are contacting us say none of that is happening and in fact it's even worse. What is going on with the phones?"
"Well, I think what is happening is that you are hearing from the people who are having a challenging time getting through," Cafferata said.
She explained that claims examiners and adjudicators are answering phones, spending an average of 20 minutes on each call.
"We're answering between 40-70% of the calls every day. It just depends on which day of the week it is."
Of 41,000 attempted calls on just one day last week, she says about 1,500 got through.
They're bringing in some Nevada Job Connect employees to help take calls starting this week.
PUA claimant Kyle Mariani, who's waiting on more than $17,000 in benefits, believes the people DETR has hired aren't doing the job they're supposed to do.
He has little faith based on his experience.
"I had spent over a month trying to get a hold of them on the phone after receiving my Social Security card, uploading it to their website," and waiting 30 more days, as instructed.
"It had been 45 business days, no review, and I called."
Kyle says after six hours of calling and another hour on hold. "I got through and then it was some lady in the background discussing a hair appointment, a funeral... Me and my husband were both sitting there: Hello? Hello? You have somebody on the phone! Hello?! And they were just talking away in the background, paying no attention."
That went on for nearly half an hour before someone realized the call was live and hung up without ever talking to Kyle.
"How can people trust that they're prioritizing claimants' issues and handling things when this kind of scenario happens?" Spears asked. "They're busy chatting among themselves as opposed to helping claimants."
Cafferata said, "There is a feature for some of the call centers that auto-answers calls. And this is like many situations that we have. There's a trade-off."
It speeds up the response, but every once in awhile, staffers don't realize the call has been answered.
"We don't know if these folks were on a break or what, but we have heard of this case and one other."
She says of the more than 6,000 calls DETR answers each week, very few fall through the cracks.
"And I apologize to those callers. It is very frustrating to try and get through and then not have the person who's answering the phone realize you've made it."
In addition to state employees, DETR has a $6 million taxpayer-funded contract with third-party call center Maximus.
It only lasts through the end of this year, but the state is looking to extend it and other support contracts.
They're also continuing to hire and add more staff and will keep doing that into next year.
Cafferata understands the focus on DETR's failures but asks the public to keep things in perspective.
"We've had over 600,000 people file initial unemployment claims in PUA and over 600,000 people file initial unemployment claims in regular unemployment. That's over 1.2 million initial claims. We only have 1.5 million Nevadans in the Nevada workforce."
DETR has been processing between 250,000-300,000 continued claims each week since the pandemic began.
"And we've put out over $7.6 billion in benefits to the state," Cafferata said, acknowledging that's no consolation to claimants who are still waiting.
"I think the job they're doing is just horrible," said Kyle.
Diana added, "Something needs to be done because it's clearly not working."
We took the opportunity we had with Director Cafferata to address some of the other issue claimants have been asking about.
LOST WAGES ASSISTANCE
After the first three weeks of Lost Wages was disbursed, DETR had to do it a week at a time because it's a limited grant and they had to make sure they had the money.
"In the UI system, we have to do it in batches of about 10,000 or it overwhelms the system. In this case, we do have to go into each claim and update their file. We had to make a couple of computer programming corrections, which slowed down the fifth week. So I think we're about halfway through," said Cafferata, adding that they should be caught up next week.
Will there be a Week 6 of LWA for Nevadans?
"It all depends on FEMA--whether they approve week six for us or not--and we have not heard back from them."
WHY ARE SO MANY CLAIMS STILL PENDING?
"There are lots of reasons. Sometimes, people get discouraged and stop filing weekly claims and set themselves back. Some have reached the end of their eligibility period."
And she says the claims covered by the PUA court case are taking priority over processing other claims due to the court's Dec. 24 deadline.
"It is a system where sometimes when we fix one thing, something else breaks."
IS THE UNEMPLOYMENT TRUST FUND ABOUT TO GO BROKE?
"The UI trust fund is the one where employers pay in, which they've continued to do through the pandemic. We actually in August alerted the federal government that at some point we would be borrowing. It looks like this is the month where we will start borrowing. We did this in the Great Recession as well, and 34 other states are already borrowing money. Regular UI money will keep coming without interruption, just from a different source. The bigger issue is the limited number of weeks people are allowed to collect benefits, unless Congress acts to change that."
WHAT ABOUT PUA? THAT PROGRAM IS SET TO EXPIRE ON DEC. 26.
"Congress can change that too. For now, the PUA program is set to expire, but those already waiting will get processed and if eligible, they will get paid even if it's after the program expiration date. But not everyone will get paid. Some portion of folks who believe they are qualified are not qualified to be getting these benefits."
WHAT'S HAPPENING WITH APPEALS?
"There are about 100 appeals scheduled to be heard each week and many more scheduled for review to determine if they actually need to be heard as an appeal or can be resolved another way."
WHY ARE PEOPLE WHO'VE NOT GOTTEN A DIME GETTING OVERPAYMENT NOTICES SAYING THEY OWE DETR MONEY?
"The over-payment module is the most recent to go live and there have been glitches where people who weren't overpaid are being told they were. That's being worked on now and DETR will follow up with those people."
WHAT IS CONGRESS DOING TO HELP NEVADANS?
Wednesday, U.S. Senators Jacky Rosen (D-NV) and Catherine Cortez Masto (D-NV) announced their co-sponsorship of the American Worker Holiday Relief Act. The bill would extend the enhanced unemployment insurance programs established in the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act.
“Given the long economic road to recovery ahead, it is essential to ensure relief for unemployed Americans, including gig workers, low-wage workers, and those in underserved communities, so Nevada’s hard-working families can safely weather this crisis. We’re proud to co-sponsor this important legislation that would extend the enhanced CARES Act unemployment programs, tie the duration of enhanced benefits to the unemployment rate so these programs last, and ensure no worker is left behind," the senators said.
BACKGROUND: Specifically, the American Worker Holiday Relief Act would:
· Extend the $600 weekly federal boost to unemployment insurance benefits through October 2021, as well as tie the additional weeks of federal benefits and new Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) program for gig and freelance workers to economic conditions on the ground. The additional weeks of federal benefits and the program for gig and freelance workers would not expire as long as the three-month average national unemployment rate is above 5.5 percent, and will stay available longer in states where unemployment remains high.
· Add 26 weeks of federal benefits for workers receiving traditional unemployment insurance. An additional 13 weeks of benefits would be added for each percentage point a state’s unemployment rate rises above 5.5 percent, up to a maximum of 78 weeks when a state’s unemployment rate is above 8.5 percent.
· Extend the Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation (PEUC) program in every state until the state’s three-month average total unemployment rate and the national three-month average total unemployment rate are below 5.5 percent.
· Allows mixed-income workers earning both W-2 wages and 1099 income as an independent contractor to access Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) similar to the Mixed Earner Pandemic Unemployment Assistance Act of 2020.