Tuesday, October 20, 2020
Oct. 20, 2020

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What reopening? Unemployment stays high amid claims struggles

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Unemployment appears to be rising again in some states just as extra federal benefits expire with no clear replacement in sight.

The most recent official state-by-state unemployment rates are from June, but a Stateline analysis of Department of Labor data released last week and other federal statistics offers a glimpse of the current picture.

It suggests that even as some businesses reopen, unemployment is rising again in seven states (California, Indiana, Kansas, Mississippi, Nevada, New Mexico and Wyoming) and is basically unchanged in 22 others, plus the District of Columbia.

Nevada and Hawaii have the nation’s highest rate of workers getting unemployment benefits, about 23% for Nevada and 20% for Hawaii, according to the Stateline analysis.

Nevada’s official unemployment rate was as high as 28% in April, according to a state estimate, but dropped to 15% in June, according to the most recent estimate by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The national unemployment rate peaked at 14.7% in April. It fell to 10.2% in July, but that was about three times the rate of July 2019.

Terrie and Brett Blodgett of Las Vegas are among the Nevadans needing help. Terrie’s work as a gem appraiser has dried up and Brett lost his resort sales job March 17, his second day at work.

After months of wrangling with the state unemployment office, only Terrie, 48, was able to get $289 a week in unemployment benefits, plus the extra $600 supplemental weekly check provided as part of the federal coronavirus relief package. The extra $600 expired on July 31.

Like many jobless Nevadans, Brett, 51, said he fits the criteria for unemployment insurance and got denial letters for no clear reason after uploading the many documents the state requested.

“Now we’re on the knife’s edge. The moratorium on evictions lifts Sept. 1 and we’re within weeks or days of losing our home and car after working our whole lives,” he said. More than 250 Nevada residents sent similar stories of frustration and despair to Stateline.

Although federal statistics released Thursday showed fewer jobless claims nationwide in the first week of August compared with the week before, some struggling states saw increases.

Nevada’s claims jumped 50% to 20,642, while Hawaii’s increased 8% to 5,458. Also with increases were Kansas, New Mexico, South Dakota and Wyoming.

Frustrated workers have sued state workforce agencies around the country and governors have ordered administrative changes and pressured officials to resign as many states have struggled to get benefits to millions of unemployed people.

Some states and cities are taking matters into their own hands as congressional negotiations over an additional relief package falter and a presidential order for more benefits is barraged by legal questions.

Florida is considering a federal loan to increase unemployment benefits, and Miami-Dade County is using federal CARES Act money to give $500 one-time payments to laid-off restaurant and hospitality workers.

Washington state set up a $40 million fund for unemployed immigrants, though it did not announce a funding source. California and Minneapolis have similar funds.

Nevada still has a backlog of 139,000 gig workers who haven’t gotten benefits, said Mark Thierman, a Las Vegas attorney who filed a lawsuit that resulted in a July court order requiring the state to speed up payments to gig workers.

“I get 100 emails a day from people who are literally starving and threatening to commit suicide. My secretary goes home crying after reading some of this,” Thierman said. “Something needs to happen fast.”

Hawaii is another state where more unemployment claims could aggravate troubles for residents already desperate for help as about 10,000 still await benefits.

“I suspect a slowdown and loss of jobs,” said Carl Bonham, director of the University of Hawaii’s Economic Research Organization, citing a lack of visitors and rising coronavirus case counts.

Many of the Nevada workers who contacted Stateline said they never got benefits they were entitled to and their situations are increasingly desperate.

“I’ve worked hard my entire life and I’m scared to death of being homeless. I swear I’ve aged 10 years in five months,” said Pamela Jones, an unemployed Las Vegas construction worker who has not been able to pay her rent since March. She said she has not gotten unemployment benefits, relying on $193 a month in food stamps and help from her grown children.

Roselia Muniz, a single mother of 7-year-old twins, was on the cusp of a new career in Las Vegas when Nevada shut down its economy. She accepted a job at an insurance company on March 3, passed a state licensing exam March 15 and lost her job two days later. Like many others, she has gotten contradictory communications and no benefits from the state.

“I was excited to start a new chapter in my life,” Muniz said in an email. “Now I am stuck waiting and trying to figure out how I am going to get back on track to provide for my daughters and home-school them.”

President Donald Trump earlier this month signed an executive order reinstating $400 a week in unemployment benefits for residents of states willing to kick in $100, but many states can’t afford that in their cash-strapped condition. The legality and the time frame are in dispute the federal money might last only a few weeks, and states may not have to contribute the $100 to qualify for it.

Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine, a Republican, said he wants to accept the offer if he can find a way to pay the extra $100, but most other states, including California and New York, said it would be impossible. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, said it would cost the state $4.2 billion through December, calling the proposal “handing the drowning man an anchor.”

New Mexico, South Carolina and West Virginia indicated they would ask for the deal, though New Mexico said it could not pay the matching funds. Louisiana said it would join the program with the understanding that it won’t have to pay matching funds, according to news reports.

Republican Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis dismissed Trump’s plan despite bipartisan calls from state lawmakers to accept it. DeSantis agreed that the state’s $275 a week maximum benefit, one of the lowest in the nation, needs to be raised and proposed doing that with a federal loan.

Other states, including Nevada, Oregon and Alaska, are still considering the idea. Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak, a Democrat, told Stateline in a statement that he’s “disappointed” there’s not more federal help “at a time when state and local governments are facing severe budget shortfalls and many workers are jobless through no fault of their own.”

In tourism-dependent states such as Nevada and Hawaii, workers can be hard to classify: A Las Vegas single mother named in the lawsuit lost two jobs, one as a bartender with a regular paycheck, and one at a cabaret where she was an independent contractor.

The state at first insisted she document $24,000 in cabaret income but the tips she got “from individual customers in small denominations” did not come with federal tax forms, according to court papers.

In Nevada, it’s been a perfect storm of high unemployment: a tourist-based economy particularly affected by virus shutdowns, the lawsuit leading to a court order to pay gig workers faster and antiquated unemployment claims systems unable to handle millions of cases.

“Nevada is really working on this we’ve got the legislative, judicial and executive branches all working together,” said Jason Guinasso, a Las Vegas attorney court-appointed to monitor compliance with an order directing the state to pay gig workers faster.

For instance, Guinasso said, the state Department of Employment, Training and Rehabilitation (DETR) asked him for more details on the thousands of complaints he’s gotten from gig workers unable to collect benefits, so it can investigate and solve issues such as rude or untrained phone line workers and technicalities that send the jobless in endless loops from one part of the agency to another.

Nevada Attorney General Aaron Ford’s office declined comment on the case. An appeal is pending in the state’s Supreme Court.

“We know many Nevadans are suffering and the state is committed to resolving cases for eligible unemployment claimants,” said Rosa Mendez, a DETR spokesperson.

Sisolak earlier this month signed legislation, passed in a special legislative session, to grant more flexibility to DETR so that it can waive technicalities such as the requirement to submit documents by mail.

Similar legislation passed last week in Oregon.

The Nevada governor also appointed a new acting DETR director this month, and named a former Assembly speaker to head a task force to help solve the agency’s problems, including a claims backlog and fraudulent claims.

Shaking up state workforce agencies is increasingly common as frustration boils over among sidelined workers unable to get through to apply for benefits.

In Florida, DeSantis removed the director of the state Department of Economic Opportunity from coronavirus-related activities, amid frustration over application delays. Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly, a Democrat, accepted the state labor secretary’s resignation in June after a series of missteps with unemployment claims, and the state still has a backlog of mostly gig workers.

Georgia Democratic lawmakers earlier this month held a news conference blaming the state’s labor commissioner for unemployment backlogs. California Republican lawmakers joined Democrats last week demanding changes at the state Employment Development Department, and Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom set up a task force to investigate claims backlogs.

Nevada’s courts appear to be the first to order changes, according to a review by Guinasso. But lawsuits also have been filed in Florida, Oregon and the District of Columbia over claims delays.

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