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6 months and counting for thousands waiting for jobless benefits

Updated September 17, 2020 - 8:09 am

Six months since the COVID-19 pandemic first prompted business shutdowns, tens of thousands of Nevadans who filed for unemployment insurance still haven’t received payments.

Leaders at the state Department of Employment, Training and Rehabilitation told the Review-Journal this week that the agency managed to clear about 14,000 unemployment insurance cases over the past month but continues to work through its claims backlog.

There are more than 60,000 outstanding cases for traditional unemployment insurance and 6,000 to 20,000 outstanding claims for those under the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program, they said.

“I see the frustration on social media, and I have gotten some calls and messages from folks who really need somebody to take a look at their case and get it resolved,” Elisa Cafferata, acting director of DETR, told the Review-Journal.

Cafferata and Barbara Buckley, head of Gov. Steve Sisolak’s rapid response team on unemployment, took the helm in August.

Here’s a snapshot of some of the Nevadans stuck in limbo with DETR.

Waiting

Aaron Funkhouser saw his livelihood fade as the pandemic ended his gig jobs, such as dog-sitting and lawn work.

“Obviously, if people are without work, they can’t really afford to pay people anymore for something like that,” Funkhouser said. He was still able to make enough money to cover immediate expenses such as rent up until June.

Later that month, Funkhouser applied for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, but he has had trouble getting his claim processed. He had uploaded his driver’s license and Social Security card. Weeks later, Funkhouser was told that he needed to upload his tax return and residency verification.

Each time a new document was uploaded, DETR would extend his time frame for a response by 21 days, Funkhouser said.

This month, DETR sent Funkhouser an email to verify his identity through ID.me. But he only has his ID and Social Security card, and the platform needed a third document to verify his identity, like a birth certificate, voter registration or a passport.

“I can’t order a birth certificate since, without money, I can’t order one of those since I’m from another state,” he said. “I’ve never once registered to vote in my entire life. And I’ve never left the country a single day in my entire life, so I never considered getting a passport. Those kinds of documents have never applied to me.”

Funkhouser said he was planning on using the unemployment money to pay for rent, food, bills, and to purchase a car. Most jobs expect employees to have reliable transportation, he says.

For now, he doesn’t know if or when his claim will get processed.

“It looks like it’ll be another three to four months,” Funkhouser said. “I’ve done literally every single thing they’ve asked me to do, and it’s still only like a 50 percent chance I’ll even get approved for unemployment.”

Stuck

Dannielle Spencer, a former art gallery manager in Las Vegas, says she isn’t sleeping much at night as financial worries keep her awake.

“I’m worried to death — how can I not be? Hand to mouth, you’re depending on this money,” Spencer said.

Since July, Spencer hasn’t received money from DETR after payments stopped. She’s received letters from the agency saying her claim is disqualified and that she was overpaid.

“I’ve done everything according to protocol,” she said of the letters. “It scares you out of your mind.”

Calling the unemployment office for help is like a game of telephone, she said. “If the calls are picked up, it’s the front line and they can’t do too much,” Spencer said. “They have to go and talk to their supervisor. By the time they connect to the supervisor, they screw it up.”

Spencer said she blames Sisolak’s handling of the unemployment agency’s response to the crisis. Spencer said she has to call in every week to file her claim because of DETR’s system glitches.

“If this was a business and if they had computer issues, they would hire IT people, to get it fixed overnight,” Spencer said. “How are we just starting to hire people six months in? It’s just so stressful, and it’s so frustrating.”

Spencer, 69, has been relying on her Social Security to keep afloat over the past few months. She’s worried that she won’t find a job at her age — especially with so many people looking for work during the pandemic.

“I don’t know if I can pay my bills, or if they’re going to take my car. I don’t know what’s coming next,” she said. “You’re so dependent on this money, and there’s so many people out of work. Who’s going to hire someone who’s a little bit older than the majority of workers out there?”

Frustrated

Michael Marks, a 75-year-old Vietnam War veteran and former advertising executive, said that he had been a ride-share driver in Reno for three years before the pandemic.

In March, he filed for unemployment and has made thousands of phone calls to DETR since. “I was making 50 to 100 phone calls a day and was told that I was absolutely qualified for PUA based on the information I gave them,” he said.

In July, he received a disqualification letter from DETR. “I was really ready to scream and tear my hair out,” Marks said. He has contacted the attorneys and tried to deliver a letter to Sisolak’s office detailing his situation and frustration.

Marks said he has maxed out credit cards and savings while waiting for his benefits. He has been living at a friend’s place, but the friend “decided this arrangement doesn’t really work well, so I was kind of given notice that in, like, 30 days or so I have to get out of here.”

Marks said that he will probably sleep in his car, and for the colder months ahead, he’ll drive to Southern Nevada.

“I thought about coming down there, in Las Vegas, because it’s warmer in the winter, but that doesn’t mean I have a place to live or a job,” Marks said.

Prioritizing

Adriana May-Azuero still hasn’t been able to get in touch with an adjudicator from DETR after months of calling the agency.

Last month, she said she received a denial letter from the agency after filing for unemployment in April. She is appealing.

The single mother of three said that she’s submitted additional documents to DETR since June, though the documents do not appear under “my documents” on the unemployment portal as being received.

Without money from DETR, May-Azuero has resorted to crowdfunding, launching a GoFundMe campaign on Thursday to raise money to pay her rent.

“I don’t how much longer I can sustain this,” said May-Azuero. “I have little girls to take care of and it’s maddening to figure out how to keep the stability let alone keep the lights on.”

In recent weeks, May-Azuero said she decided to home-school her children this school year. She still wakes up early to call DETR, often with no success, in the morning before teaching and in between breaks.

She prioritizes which bills to pay.

“I can’t not pay the internet bill, because I need the internet to home-school the kids, and you have to keep the power on. So maybe I don’t pay the gas bill for a month or two until I have some extra resources,” May-Azuero said.

DETR’s handling of the unemployment situation has exposed her to questions she didn’t really think of before the pandemic.

“To continuously be in a situation where it feels like you’re constantly hitting a brick wall is really concerning,” May-Azuero said. “Why didn’t I pay attention to this before? What’s going on at DETR? Do they have anybody working there? Do they communicate with one another? Those are the thoughts that are continuously going through my mind.”

Contact Jonathan Ng at jng@reviewjournal.com. Follow @ByJonathanNg on Twitter.

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