As Nevada’s unemployment crisis heads into its sixth month, some claimants are still in limbo in a system swamped by more than a million applications for benefits. There’s been a lawsuit. There’s also been new legislation passed in a special session.
And still, many say they’re stuck in an endless cycle of computer glitches, confusing messages from the state and questions about whether they’re eligible for benefits they’ve been waiting for since business shutdowns began in March.
Two weeks ago, Governor Steve Sisolak announced he was creating a “strike force” to try to get to the bottom of the delays. At the helm is Barbara Buckley, the former top leader of the Nevada Assembly who now leads the Legal Aid Center of Southern Nevada.
In her day job, Buckley helps low-income people help themselves through legal problems. That includes everything from teaching people their rights in immigration proceedings, to helping defend themselves when they face eviction.
But she said she was getting plenty of calls from people in dire straits because they’re unable to get an unemployment claim resolved.
“Yes, they’re coming in from everybody. News, legislators, elected officials, they certainly came here as well,” Buckley said.
One of those people is Will Cannon, a personal trainer who had just been getting started in his career in Las Vegas when the shutdown hit. He’s now been denied in the two separate unemployment systems, but he thinks that’s an error.
“I don’t understand why you’re telling me no,” Cannon said. “All my paperwork adds up. It lines up to everything you’re asking. I gave you my proof of employment, [my] bank statements. I showed up separation papers from my job. I gave them all my I.D.s, I gave them [my] social security card. Everything they asked me to upload, I uploaded.”
Cannon has been unable to find a job as a trainer even with gyms open again. There’s just not the demand for training sessions, and many gyms have closed altogether. He’s also looking for work as a security guard, but hasn’t landed a new job yet. He said his focus is on trying to support his wife right now, by making her meals and helping however he can. She still has a job, and is the sole breadwinner in the household right now.
“I’m here [some] mornings in tears. I mean, literally tears, man. Because I can’t help my wife,” Cannon said. “You know what I mean? And she’s struggling, herself, trying not to get sick. Because she is the only one bringing in some sort of income in the house.”
When I sat down with Buckley for an interview over Zoom, she spoke highly of the workers who have been trying to process claims as part of the Nevada Department of Employment, Training and Rehabilitation. But she said what her new task force can do is bring a fresh pair of eyes to the situation — including expertise from the private sector — to evaluate which processes are working and which aren’t.
“Now I told some of the employment security people, ‘Look, you’ve been inside the house, fighting the fire for five months. You’re exhausted,’” Buckley said. “‘Reinforcements are here. So maybe we can just bring a different way of viewing it, and a private sector way of doing something.’”
The team includes the chief compliance officer of The Cosmopolitan casino and a former top I.T. executive from the multinational company Siemens.
Still, Buckley said she hasn’t discovered a silver bullet solution to the backlog. There are issues with computer systems for both the traditional state-paid unemployment system, and the system that administers Pandemic Unemployment Assistance or PUA, the federal program for gig workers and self-employed people.
There are also issues with those systems being separate, at a time when many workers have both traditional jobs with a conventional employer-employee relationship as well as gig work on the side. And then there’s a large number of fraudulent claims that still hasn’t been quantified.
“It’s not like so much an individual cheating, as much as organized fraud. Meaning someone has filed a bunch of claims using the identities of someone else,” Buckley said. “And it’s not a one-off, run-of-the-mill, street kind of criminal. It’s somebody with a lot of I.T. expertise who is a part of a data stealing ring.”
So what’s the solution? Two weeks in, Buckley said her strike force is trying out new methods of verifying claimants’ identities, with hopes of weeding the phony claims from the legitimate ones. There’s also a new fraud chief charged with getting to the bottom of those bad claims.
She’s enlisted the help of hundreds of people who work in the state’s welfare division to cross-train as unemployment officers and serve as a force multiplier. They’ll be trained to specialize in certain common issues and help resolve hang ups on large batches of similarly situated claims. And she plans to work on an online dashboard that will offer the public more information on how many claims are pending, approved and denied.
It’s still unclear how many legitimate claimants remain unpaid because it’s unclear how many of the total claims are illegitimate.
She’s upfront about the fact that some of those struggling unpaid people will never be paid. That’s because they’re ineligible under the very specific rules of the unemployment programs. It’s an unfortunate situation for many people who held out hope that they could tap into this financial safety net to weather the pandemic’s economic effects.
But if people are not eligible, Buckley said she at least wants claimants to get closure so they can move on.
“You know, there’s a lot of people who have applied who aren’t eligible. They kind of think, ‘Well, everybody’s getting money.’ They’ve never received a W-2. They haven’t worked in a year and a half,” Buckley said. “And some of the people, they’re not a gig worker, either. So they just think, ‘Because I’m not working, can I get unemployment?’ Or there wasn’t a real… there wasn’t a COVID reason for their 1099 loss of work, right?”
Read more from Michelle Rindels’ interview with Barbara Buckley at The Nevada Independent.