Senate hears measure to expedite, expand access to unemployment benefits

Bill wins unanimous approval despite concerns from Republicans

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The Legislature on Sunday, Aug. 2, 2020 during the third day of the 32nd Special Session in Carson City. (David Calvert/Nevada Independent)

State lawmakers spent Sunday night hearing a bill that would remove glitches and roadblocks that have left some Nevadans waiting months for unemployment benefits. It would also allow residents to maximize their benefits, allow workers to earn more without losing benefits, and define the terms under which a worker who is unable to resume work because of COVID-19 would be eligible for unemployment. 

Senate Bill 3, sponsored by the Senate Committee of the Whole, allows for extraordinary measures to expedite payment of both standard unemployment insurance and Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, should Congress extend it. The $600 payments approved in March expired at the end of July. 

The Trump Administration wants to replace the flat fee payment by providing Americans with a percentage of their previous income, a prospect “that could take months” to determine, according to Nevada Department of Employment, Training and Rehabilitation Administrator Kimberly Gaa.

Among the provisions of the state legislation:  

  • The bill seeks to establish a definition of “good cause” that would allow vulnerable classes of employees who are unable to return to work to receive benefits. The Department of Labor would have final say on what constitutes “good cause.” 
  • The measure would allow Nevada to qualify as a high unemployment area and receive seven additional weeks of federally-funded benefits. The federal threshold is 6.5 percent. The state’s unemployment rate was 30 percent in April, 25 percent in May, and 15 percent in June.
  • Currently, claimants who earn more than their weekly unemployment benefit are ineligible for that week’s unemployment benefit as well as PUA.  The measure would increase the amount claimants may earn up to one and a half times their benefit without penalty, allowing workers to earn more and avoiding costly delays in processing claims. 

“We want to encourage low-wage workers to go to work but also have access to the federal benefit,” said Francisco Morales of Gov. Steve Sisolak’s office.  

  • The measure would also alleviate delays caused by time-consuming requirements that DETR verify earnings,vacation pay, or paid time-off.  The regulation has no sunset and is designed to provide relief until the 2021 Legislature convenes. “At the height we had upwards of 30,000 deductible income issues,” said Morales.
  • Senate Bill 3 offers relief in times of emergency to employers who would otherwise incur a change in their ‘experience rating,’ the factor that determines unemployment tax liability based on the number of employees laid off or furloughed.  

The measure is designed to “prepare for economic turmoil in the coming months” and to expedite payments, Morales said.

But even a bill designed to put money in the hands of constituents prompted partisan bickering among legislators.   

Republican Sen. James Settlemeyer blamed “the fraud that has been perpetrated” for delaying payments. 

“What type of funds can we get you so you can investigate the fraud and try to get on top of this issue?” he asked DETR’s Gaa. 

Sen. Ira Hansen asked Gaa if the percentage of fraudulent PUA claims was “one percent, one hundred, or something in between?” 

Gaa’s response that it was “something in between” prompted Hansen to declare half of the state’s PUA claims were fraudulent.   

Nevada has paid $6.2 billion in PUA and unemployment insurance since the pandemic began — the same amount it paid in four years combined of the Great Recession.  

“That’s flat spooky,” Hansen remarked.

A number of Republicans complained they had just received the bill and had not had time to read it in its entirety.  

Sen. Keith Pickard, a Republican, said the measure gives “unfettered authority” to administrators. 

“I think it’s important for us to know what we’re signing,” he said.

“You can’t just throw money at the issue,” Morales said, noting there are statutory impediments that prevent DETR from expediting claims. “You can’t just throw more staff. Some states have suspended the application of a lot of different statutes.”

“I don’t think we can have our cake and eat it too,” Sen. Julia Ratti, a Democrat, said of senators’ desire to make constituents whole. “Either we are going to give the administrators discretion or we are going to continue to tie their hands.”

“Also there’s been an implication that fraud is the major reason why so many Nevadans have had their claims slowed down,” Ratti said. “But we just don’t know. I’m really concerned we’ve left an impression that is not accurate.”

Ratti said fraud investigations should be left to the Attorney General and U.S. Attorney while DETR focuses on expediting payments to those who are eligible.  

“How quickly do  you think you can make a difference for Nevadans who have been struggling and waiting?” Pickard asked. 

“We don’t know what the future holds,” Morales responded.

Dana Gentry
Senior Reporter | 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. Gentry began her career in broadcasting as an intern at Channel 8, KLAS-TV. She later became a reporter at Channel 8, working with Las Vegas TV news legends Bob Stoldal and the late Ned Day. Gentry left her reporting job in 1985 to focus on motherhood. She returned to TV news in 2001 to launch "Face to Face with Jon Ralston" and the weekly business programs In Business Las Vegas and Vegas Inc, which she co-anchored with Jeff Gillan. Dana has four adult children, a grandson, three dogs, three cats and a cockatoo named Casper.