Nevada Unemployment Woes Shed Light On Federal Neglect
LAS VEGAS - Five years into the recession, Nevada's unemployment rate remains stubbornly high. At 9.5 percent it's the highest in the nation.
To make matters worse, a recent software upgrade caused the unemployment office's computer system to be shut down temporarily, delaying payments for weeks. Many states are having the same struggles with outdated and overwhelmed unemployment departments.
Cherie Dubois is a 31-year-old single mother of two in Las Vegas. She has been going to the Job Connect center almost daily seeking information about the status of her unemployment benefits. Dubois has also been trying to use the state employment department's new website.
"You have to enter all your information and accept the terms and agreement, then once you accept it, it should bring you to the new site which I've never seen a glimpse of because I keep getting a message to contact the unemployment system, " Dubois said.
She said she hasn't been able to get through to anyone on the phone either. Nevada began transitioning to a new system in late August and the state shut down services for a week. The program continues to have significant problems. As a result, tens of thousands of people like Dubois have been waiting weeks for their benefits.
"I'm like a month behind on all my bills, I'm pretty sure the gas is going to get cut next," Dubois said. She had to borrow money from family to turn her electricity back on.
Nevada's Department of Employment, Training and Rehabilitaiton says they expected to have problems launching their new software system and tried to let everyone on unemployment know they should file their claims early. Jeff Frischmann is the Chief of Unemployment Insurance Operations for Nevada.
"But when you're trying to move 50,000 people, and asking them all to do something, not all of them follow your instructions," he said.
The upgrade to Nevada's 30-year-old system cost $34 million and has been in the planning stages for nearly four years.
Kelly Carch is the department's Deputy Administrator. He said Nevada has been saving its federal allowance for years to put toward a new system.
"This is all federal money we're using, no state money involved in these projects, but the feds don't always give us a lot of money," Carch said.
Nevada is not alone in its technology struggles. Last month, the Government Accountability Office released a study that found across the country most states' existing unemployment insurance systems were 30 to 40 years old and were "incapable of efficiently handling increasing workloads."
"For many years Congress has cheated the states out of significant funding to administer the program," said Maurice Emsellum.He's the Director of the Access and Opportunity Program at the National Employment Law Project in California.
"They've been operating on shoestring budgets for the most part, and then you add on top of that a huge recession and states are really stretched to the limit financially," Emsellum said.
He said employment offices in California and Massachusetts also recently faced problems with flooded phone lines and a backlog of unpaid benefits due to difficulties with system upgrades. Emsellum's organization plans to release a report in the coming weeks on the disrepair of the nation's unemployment programs.
"We have an infrastructure that's falling apart at the seams. And it's the responsibility of the federal government, they hold the purse strings, to put the system back together."
Nevada's unemployed faced a double whammy this month - delayed payments, and for many, a severe cut. That's because as Nevada planned its system upgrade, it delayed the implementation of federal sequestration cuts for people who received long-term unemployment.
Most states put those cuts in gradually, but Nevada squeezed it all into the month of September, forcing 20,000 people to take a 59 percent cut in their benefits.
Jeff Frischmann from Nevada's unemployment office wants people to know they are trying their best to work out the glitches in the new system.
"I mean the biggest thing we're asking for is some patience from our customers, we feel their pain, those people who are not getting paid, trust me, I go home at night, I go to bed at night and I think about them," he said.
But Cherie Dubois is losing sleep at night, too, and she wants some relief.
"It's a humbling experience, I can tell you that much, you find a way to make it work. I mean it could always be worse, it could always be worse, but right now it feels pretty unbearable," Dubois said.