The Nevada Department of Employment, Training & Rehabilitation (DETR) saw the highest amount of weekly unemployment claims in the state’s history for six consecutive weeks following Gov. Steve Sisolak’s directive on March 17 to close nonessential businesses to curb the spread of COVID-19.
The department saw 374,435 initial unemployment claims from March 8 through April 25 of 2020.
This number includes anyone, regardless if they qualified for benefits, who filed for unemployment benefits for the first time, in which they provide their recent employment information and the reason they became unemployed.
If one totals all of the initial claims, in addition to continued weekly claims, or claims that have been reopened after several weeks of inactivity, DETR has seen 443,843 unemployment claims from April 8 to April 25. This number is higher because the same individual can be counted more than once if they continued to file weekly claims.
Many Nevadans have still been unable to get through the system to file for unemployment benefits after losing their job during the COVID-19 pandemic.
A screenshot of an call log trying to get through to file for unemployment posted on Reddit on r/Reno tells the story:
Out of the 325,852 claims that were successfully filed and recipients deemed eligible, 271,385 of those claims were processed. Just under 200,000 people were paid.
Claim trends April 19 to April 25
Individuals must file unemployment claims weekly, which includes reporting their earnings, certifying that they are still available for work and that they have not refused suitable work.
State employment offices reported they saw 42,541 initial claims from April 19 to April 25. This is the fifth highest weekly total of initial claims in the state’s history. The week before, DETR had 39,496 initial claims.
The agency had 325,852 total claims open from April 19 to April 25, and at least 50,000 individuals were not eligible for unemployment benefits. A small section of that number includes independent contractors and self-employed individuals.
Even in these difficult times, we are still bound by federal and state laws governing who is eligible for unemployment.”
Roughly 12,000 individuals’ earnings exceeded their weekly unemployment benefit amount and were considered ineligible. About 10,000 individuals simply didn’t refile.
DETR’s Public Information Officer, Rosa Mendez, said the office also saw a significant number of incomplete claims from April 19 to April 25.
“The most concerning is the 27,000 weeks that are ‘Pending’ – these claimants began filing for a week of benefits but did not complete the process,” Mendez said. “Without a completed weekly claim, we cannot process payment, and we are actively trying to learn why so many people do not complete this process.”
She said the department has no way of tracking why people don’t complete their claim.
Payments so far
DETR has paid $813.8 million to unemployment claims from March 1 to April 30. This includes $347.8 million in Regular Unemployment Compensation and $465.9 million from the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act.
There are different types of unemployment benefits offered under the CARES Act.
Individuals who have successfully filed for unemployment will get an additional $600 per week through the Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation fund from March 29 to July 25.
Workers who have used all available benefits, or who are ineligible for state unemployment benefits, will receive assistance through the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) through Dec. 31, 2020. These types of employees include self-employed workers, independent contractors, freelancers, workers without a long enough work history, religious institutions and workers with non-profit organizations under religious institutions. The amount they can receive varies.
The Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation (PEUC) program permits the state to extend unemployment benefits by 13 weeks. These benefits will go toward workers after they have exhausted all other Nevada unemployment benefits.
The state is continuing to waive several requirements traditionally required to receive unemployment benefits. Individuals are not required to be actively searching for work and do not have a seven-day waiting period after initially filing.
DETR has also contracted a company called Alorica to answer informational questions and help with Pandemic Unemployment Assistance.
“Alorica’s call center is fielding thousands of calls daily which do not require trained UI agents to help solve for constituents,” Mendez said. “An example of one of the top questions from consumers as of recent was, ‘Where is my IRS check?’ Alorica is able to help navigate such informational questions.”
Curbside pickup brings back some jobs
Clark County residents filed the most continued claims from April 19 to April 25, the total being 247,659. Washoe County came in second with 31,395 continued claims.
About 21 percent of those workers belong to the ‘Food Preparation and Serving Related’ industry out of the claims filed from April 19 to April 25.
On May 1, Gov. Sisolak lifted some closure restrictions, allowing nonessential retailers to provide curbside commerce. This has allowed a small portion of Nevadans to return to work but some still have yet to receive their unemployment benefits.
DETR said the office will be back paying unemployment claims from the date of eligibility, this includes if a person who has filed has returned to work without receiving their benefits.
There are also concerns about going back to work. COVID-19 is still prevalent in Washoe County. On May 1, the Washoe County Health Department reported the highest spike in new positive COVID-19 cases.
Heather Kerwin, the epidemiology program manager for the Washoe County Health District, said essential workers, like grocery store staff, are at risk for being exposed to COVID-19 and spreading it.
“We do know that there are certain occupations, our essential workers are still driving some of these infections in the workplace and then unfortunately bringing it home to their families,” Kerwin said.
If individuals are afraid to return to work, in fears of being exposed to the virus, they will become ineligible for state unemployment benefits.
“Claimants failure to accept work once suitable work is available could disqualify them from receiving unemployment benefits in the future,” Mendez from DETR said.
The same goes for PUA, according to the CARES Act website:
Circumstances under the CARES Act in which specific, credible health concerns could require an individual to quit his or her job and thereby make the individual eligible for PUA. For example, an individual may be eligible for PUA if he or she was diagnosed with COVID-19 by a qualified medical professional, and although the individual no longer has COVID-19, the illness caused health complications that render the individual objectively unable to perform his or her essential job functions, with or without a reasonable accommodation. However, voluntarily deciding to quit your job out of a general concern about exposure to COVID-19 does not make you eligible for PUA.
“Even in these difficult times, we are still bound by federal and state laws governing who is eligible for unemployment,” Mendez said. “While we are trying to interpret those rules in light of the current economic environment, there are still people who will not be eligible to receive benefits.”
Gov. Sisolak retracts statement on funding DETR
It’s no secret that DETR never had the capacity to handle this high of traffic. During Sisolak’s press conference on April 14, he said DETR needed more resources well before the pandemic.
“Attempts to upgrade the unemployment insurance system, or increase staffing, or even maintain staffing levels, were not approved in past legislative sessions. I want to emphasize that: we saw that there was a need for expanding, and updating the system, and the staffing in unemployment, and it did not get through the legislature,” Sisolak said.
He emphasized at his last press conference April 30 that he never meant to cast blame on Nevada legislators.
“In a previous press conference, I implied, or at least left the impression to some folks, that I was blaming our current Nevada legislature for the system issues experienced by DETR in processing the incredible flood of unemployment claims that we’ve got. That was certainly not my intention,” Sisolak said, “The truth is that for decades, our state has had to make tough choices in funding state services. That challenge has caught up with us in these unprecedented times, confronting an overwhelming demand for service.
“But this is a long term structural challenge. It is not the fault of our legislators who are working very hard for Nevadans every day. So, I wanted to apologize to the legislators in both parties if I gave that impression.”
Lucia Starbuck is a graduate of University of Nevada, Reynolds School of Journalism. She has reported on issues impacting Northern Nevada, including the affordable housing crisis, a lack of oral healthcare and challenges voters with disabilities face while trying to participate in the election process. She has directed and filmed two documentaries about homelessness.Through reporting, Lucia strives to shine a light on the challenges vulnerable populations face in our community.