DETR paints itself as overburdened but adapting to ‘beyond a tsunami’ of claims

“It’s very difficult to make headway on the overall backlog because the number of applications are continuing to inundate us,” DETR Director Elisa Cafferata told the Legislature's Interim Finance Committee.

The Department of Employment, Training and Rehabilitation has made significant strides in addressing its backlog of unemployment claims, according to the department’s top administrator, but with new claims still flooding the state, any gains may be difficult to notice.

DETR Director Elisa Cafferata on Friday appeared before legislators on the Interim Finance Committee to get approval for $28 million of additional federal money to support the department and its expanded unemployment programs.

Lawmakers were quick to question DETR about its backlog.

“We hear about it in emails and phone calls daily, hourly,” said Democratic Assemblywoman Daniele Monroe-Moreno.

Operational issues and an expanding backlog of claims have created personal crises for families struggling to make ends meet through the pandemic, and they have been a high profile embarrassment for the state and its elected officials. In addition to the state’s regular unemployment benefits program, DETR is responsible for a variety of federal unemployment programs, including Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) covering the self employed, Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation (PEUC) expanding the number of weeks of claims someone can make, and the Lost Wages supplemental program.

Cafferata described the influx of unemployment claims as “beyond a tsunami.” She painted a picture of a stretched-thin department that is proactively bringing in more resources and adapting as best it can, particularly since the creation of a dedicated task force in August.

“We literally have had 1.2 million initial claims for unemployment in Nevada,” said Cafferata, who has been in the top role since September and is the department’s third director since March. “The workforce is 1.5 million workers. So, that gives you a sense of the magnitude of work (and) the (numbers of) claims that are not going to be eligible to be paid.”

Nevada in April recorded an unemployment rate of 30.1 percent — the highest unemployment rate recorded by any state since reliable data has been kept. While many of Nevada’s jobs have returned as businesses were allowed to reopen, the unemployment rate remains elevated at 10.1 percent in November. Nevada is one of only three states with an unemployment rate in the double digits. (New Jersey and Hawaii are the others.)

Nevada’s unemployment rate in November 2019 was 3.7 percent.

According to Cafferata, in 2019, the average number of claims averaged 18,000 per week. DETR is currently averaging 280,000 per week.

“Those folks are not calling you because they’re getting their benefits,” she told lawmakers. “You’re hearing from the folks who are in the backlog.”

Cafferata told lawmakers that since August DETR has worked through 90 percent of its PUA backlog and almost 90 percent of its backlog of regular unemployment claims. But new claims are still flowing in high numbers.

“It’s very difficult to make headway on the overall backlog because the number of applications are continuing to inundate us,” she said. “We’ve made a huge dent. We think we have the tools in place to get a better handle on things and resolve it more quickly.”

Approximately 200 employees from Nevada’s Department of Welfare and Social Services are working overtime for DETR and will continue to do so into the new year. Cafferata said DETR is also exploring the possibility of tapping the Public Utilities Commission and UNLV’s Boyd School of Law to work on appeals.

Acknowledging that the department will eventually have to stop borrowing staff, Cafferata said DETR is continuing to boost its internal staff with additional employees.

She also addressed fraudulent claims. DETR plans to conduct an analysis on their backend to identify fraudulent claims and explore possible patterns in them.

“A lot of what you see in terms of cases that are not being paid, they represent folks who are not legitimate Nevada claimants,” said Cafferata. “When people say thousands of people not being paid, that’s probably a good thing because we know they’re not valid applicants.”

There are also increased national efforts to crack down on fraudulent activities that cross state lines, including increased scrutiny from banks. Earlier this month, Bank of America announced that more than $2 billion has been stolen from California’s unemployment fund.

Cafferata said it will take “several more months” before DETR can provide in-depth reports on fraud within its unemployment programs “but certainly every state in the country is dealing with it and we’ll have much more to say.”

April Corbin Girnus
April Corbin Girnus is an award-winning journalist with a decade of media experience. She has been a beat writer at Las Vegas Sun, a staff writer at LEO Weekly, web editor of Las Vegas Weekly and a blogger documenting North American bike share systems’ efforts to increase ridership in underserved communities. An occasional adjunct journalism professor, April steadfastly rejects the notion that journalism is a worthless major. Amid the Great Recession, she earned a B.A. in journalism from the University of Nevada Las Vegas, where she served as editor-in-chief of the student newspaper. She later earned an M.A. in media studies and a graduate certificate in media management from The New School for Public Engagement. April currently serves on the board of the Society of Professional Journalists Las Vegas pro chapter. A stickler about municipal boundary lines, April enjoys teaching people about unincorporated Clark County. She grew up in Sunrise Manor and currently resides in Paradise with her husband, two children and three mutts.