13 Investigates


Tens of thousands still awaiting unemployment benefits as PUA expiration date nears

Legitimate claims are 'needles in fraud haystack'
Posted at 7:57 AM, Oct 05, 2020
and last updated 2020-10-05 11:28:39-04

LAS VEGAS (KTNV) — Used to be, when Michelle Lau's phone rang, it was a customer placing an order for one of her creations.

Her company, Miso Pup, provides a posh approach to traveling with your pooch.

"And right now, no one's traveling," Lau said. "No one's really spoiling their dogs and purchasing products."

When the phone rings now, she says it's usually a bill collector -- someone Lau simply has no answers for because she's still waiting for answers on her Pandemic Unemployment Assistance claim.

"I applied way back and got approved -- deemed eligible -- May 22."

Her eligibility was backdated to Feb. 16, but no money came.

Her benefit amount has flip-flopped from $365 per week to the bare minimum of $181 without explanation, "Which I decided not to appeal because I feel like that might hold up my payment even more," Lau said.

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

Finally, in August, payment dates began appearing in her account... but no money came with them.

"I call every day," she said. "I have transaction numbers and it shows on my portal that I have been paid and there was a payment number. Yet there's no money."

When she asked her bank to help trace the direct deposits the state Department of Employment, Training, and Rehabilitation supposedly made, "They don't show any incoming, any declined, pending... nothing."

DETR's answer to that was to switch her from direct deposit to a debit card in September.

"And since I switched over I have received four weeks, including this week," Lau said in a Sept. 28 interview. "But the back payment, the lump sum, is missing."

"It's just not there and there's nobody that can actually help and reissue the payment."

That lump sum is nearly $15,000.

"That's what unemployment is there for. It's there to help you through," said Lau.

"It's not for you to live on and depend on, but during the past few months, that's really the only option that a lot of us have had," she added. "And now we sit here and we wait."

She says navigating the PUA system is like running through a maze.

"They're trying to make us run and find the money," said Lau. "There's just been so many -- they call them glitches, I call it incompetence -- I just don't understand how a state can actually run like this."

The state has been trying to run DETR more effectively and efficiently with the Rapid Response Strike Force.

Headed by former Assembly Speaker Barbara Buckley and in place since Aug. 1, the task force is supposed to be prioritizing first filers like Michelle Lau.

"Why haven't things been processed in the order that the claims were filed? Have you been able to figure out why things got so messed up?" Darcy Spears asked Buckley.

"I myself didn't take the time to find out," Buckley said. "Rather, they're the priority as we look at the backlog. First in, first out."

Buckley can only work to clean up the mess, but said if she were calling the shots, "During a pandemic, we would just send everybody a check when you have job loss over a certain amount of time."

DETR Director Elisa Cafferata says the backlog of about 80,000 claims is down to about 66,000 since the task force started at the beginning of August.

That's not good enough for Lau.

"You know what? Work 24 hours a day, seven days a week until the backlog is cleared," said Lau. "We're not resting! The bill collectors calling us aren't resting! They need to do something!"

200 newly-retrained welfare workers have just started working evenings and overtime on Saturdays.

But DETR says it's still facing the continuing roadblock plaguing the PUA program -- rampant fraud.

It's gotten so bad in California that the state put a temporary hold on processing new claims.

Cafferata says legitimate PUA claims in Nevada are needles in a haystack of fraud.

In one case currently under criminal investigation, 1,600 claimants filed for PUA benefits from one abandoned house.

"So the workers are trying to get to the people that need it and they're going through 1,600 fraudulent applications in a row," Buckley said.

In DETR's new partnership with the identity check company ID.me, 75% of the 12,000 claims checked so far have turned out to be invalid.

"Those fraudulent cases are slowing everything down," Cafferata said.

But the design of DETR's system is also bogging things down -- even the simple task of tallying the total number of outstanding claims.

"We have between 6,000 - 20,000 valid PUA claims," said Cafferata, "we believe."

In explaining that chasm, Cafferata said, "Our systems are designed to track issues that need to be resolved. So if you have five issues on your claim, you are in our system five times and then we have to sort of de-duplicate you."

And that's part of the reason DETR's promised dashboard has yet to debut.

The date remains elusive but when it's finally up, it will let the public track how many claims have been paid and how many remain in the backlog.

All the while, we're sliding ever closer to PUA's expiration date.

Per federal rules, the program and its funding end on Dec. 26.

Buckley hopes there will be no Nevadan left waiting for PUA at the end of the year.

On Oct. 5, the state takes over the PUA call center with trained staff who will be able to correct claims.

Although the federal government did not provide for a PUA extension, Congress does have the power to extend PUA benefits beyond the end of this year.

As for Michelle Lau, just days after we asked DETR about Lau's claim, she got her money, including all the back pay she was owed, which totaled $14,544.

Lau said, sadly, the entire amount has already been used to pay past-due bills.

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