Nevada’s unemployment system overwhelmed by economic victims of COVID-19

Private sector task force absent from effort to connect workers with benefits

By: - April 8, 2020 10:35 am

(Photo: Bridget Bennett)

Three weeks after Gov. Steve Sisolak ordered the closure of casinos and other businesses in an effort to stem the spread of COVID-19, thousands of newly unemployed Nevadans remain unable to even file a claim with the state to receive benefits. 

Nevadans have filed more than 164,000 claims thus far, according to the state. The number of unemployed who qualify for benefits is unknown, given expanded criteria allowing those who traditionally do not qualify to receive payments. 

“Labor force employment in Nevada is 1.4 million,” according to Jeremy Aguero of Applied Analysis, who says another 240,000 work for “non-employer establishments” such as REALTORS, Uber drivers, and independent contractors. “Combined, I would put the number at approximately 1.64 million.”

The American Gaming Association told the New York Times more than 200,000 resort employees alone are out of work.  A small number of companies, including Wynn Resorts and LV Sands, are paying employees for as long as a month to six weeks.  

“I just encourage everyone to please keep trying, be as patient as you possibly can,” Sisolak said Monday evening during a news briefing. “It’s just our capacity —  our bandwidth — we’re dealing with computer access for this many calls that we’re getting.”

In a state brimming with technological talent and wizardry, the government has yet to triage the economically injured, some of whom have had no earnings since mid-March.

“I have been trying for over a week now to get in touch with the phone numbers at the state’s unemployment offices… and it is always busy,” a Las Vegas man wrote to the Current. “I did everything online and it gave me an error message and said to call them with a reference number. That’s fine but I cannot get through. There is no email place to get in touch. I can’t get a claim started.”

Sisolak’s office has not responded to questions about what preparations the governor put in place in anticipation of the surge in claims. 

The state’s Response, Relief and Recovery Task Force, chaired by former MGM CEO Jim Murren, was formed by Sisolak for the purpose of “mobilizing the private sector to assist in ongoing efforts undertaken by State agencies and the Nevada Health Response Center.”

But easing the bottleneck of unemployment claims, a crisis of its own to hundreds of thousands of Nevadans in need, is not among the task force’s mission, according to a spokesperson for R and R Partners, the public relations agency representing the task force.

“The sole mission of the Nevada COVID-19 Task Force, as directed by Sisolak, is to assist with meeting the monumental and continued need for personal protective equipment and medical supplies for our medical community and first responders,” Tracey Koblick of R and R Partners told the Current.  

Sisolak, however, described a wide-ranging mission for the task force when he announced its creation.  

“The Task Force will be charged with assessing the physical assets and human capital available in the private sector, then helping organize the deployment of those resources in support of the State of Nevada and the Nevada Health Response Center efforts,” a news release from Sisolak said. 

Murren, who left his position as CEO of MGM Resorts International to head the task force, is receiving $32 million from his former employer, which has laid off its work force in the wake of resort closures.  

Nevada has strong ties to private industry, including tech companies such as Apple and Switch, both of which are beneficiaries of state tax incentives designed to diversify the economy.  It’s unknown whether the state’s tech companies have been called upon to facilitate unemployment claim processing. 

“I can’t speak for DETR, but I can tell you we have been working very closely with the manufacturers in the state to see how they can help during this crisis,” said Greg Bortolin, spokesman for the Governor’s Office of Economic Development.

Nevada is not alone in its plight to keep up with unemployment claims. The Washington Post reports states are scrambling to process some 10 million claims filed in the last two weeks.

New York is partnering with Google to get people signed up and paid. The state reports a 1,075 percent increase in claims filed thus far in 2020 over 2019.

In Florida, Gov. Ron Desantis is trying to raise the $275 weekly cap on benefits (the lowest in the nation) and extend payments beyond the state’s 12-week limit, according to U.S. News and World Report.

Some states, such as Connecticut, are relying on 40-year old computer systems amid a 20-fold increase in demand that “dwarfs the Great Recession.”

West Virginia hired extra personnel to cut the backlog.

“We’re catching up, and we’re catching up fast, and that’s what we should be doing,” West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice said Tuesday.

Sisolak previously cited the failure of filers to remember their previous DETR passwords. It’s unknown what percentage of the currently unemployed have previously filed for unemployment.  

DETR director Dr. Tiffany-Tyler Garner did not respond to requests for an interview.  A spokesperson for DETR failed to respond to questions submitted in writing.  

Nevada’s Department of Employment, Training and Rehabilitation (DETR) is underfunded, according to Sisolak.

In fiscal years 2010-11, DETR received $9.7 million from the state’s general fund. State funding for the departments administrative costs has increased by less than $600,000 in the last decade to $10.3 million.

“The Unemployment Insurance Program continues to face declining administrative funding overall from the federal government and must support the regular operation of the program with Penalties and Interest funds collected each year in order to maintain current levels of service and performance,” says DETR’s 2017-2019 budget request.

The federal government’s $2.2 trillion economic stimulus augments state unemployment payments by $600 a week for four months.  It’s unknown when those payments will be available.

Nevada officials say unemployment recipients will be paid retroactively to mid-March, when Sisolak ordered businesses to close.

A newly released study from Oxford Economics says Nevada may be among the state economies hardest hit by the pandemic because of its reliance on tourism, according to Reuters.

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Dana Gentry
Dana Gentry

Dana Gentry is a native Las Vegan and award-winning investigative journalist. She is a graduate of Bishop Gorman High School and holds a Bachelor's degree in Communications from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.