John L. Smith On The Enduring Troubles At The State's Unemployment Office


(AP Photo/John Locher, File)

In this March 17, 2020, file photo, people wait in line for help with unemployment benefits at the One-Stop Career Center in Las Vegas. The coronavirus pandemic has been particularly brutal to the tourism-dependent economies of Nevada and Hawaii, lifting the unemployment rate in both states to about one-quarter of the workforce.

The state unemployment office continues to make changes after being swamped with jobless claims during the pandemic. 

Just this past week, the agency announced more personnel changes. 

Administrator Kimberly Gaa was on a leave of absence and two former administrators were back as contract employees. 

“I think it’s seen as an example of an administration that is pretty much at this point willing to try anything to try to patch the system as it exists and basically fix it going forward,” KNPR contributor John L. Smith said.

Smith noted that the system had lost a lot of employees through layoffs and attrition as the economy got better following the Great Recession, but when the layoffs on the Strip started because of the pandemic the system was quickly overwhelmed.

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According to people that Smith has talked to at the unemployment office, one of the biggest issues with getting benefits out to people has been the scale of the problem.

"Any competence issues aside, and clearly you can raise those questions with the administration handling this, the fact is there are a lot of people trying to get into that small pipeline of the state's system," he said, "And it's taken way too long."

Plus, the employees at DETR are still working through a backlog of cases. Under the system, if someone applies for unemployment and they get rejected, the unemployment office sends an email explaining what paperwork might be needed to get the proper benefits.

Then the applicant sends back an email with the proper documentation; however, those emails have been backed up for months. 

"It's a long process to sort it out," he said, "The tragedy of it for people is they're working in the gig economy where you're not a full-time employee and that makes it harder for you to get an unemployment check."

Smith thinks all the problems with unemployment has hurt the popularity of Gov. Steve Sisolak. 

Besides the problems with an overwhelmed system, there have also been issues with fraud. 

"There is no question that there's a tremendous jump in claims that may be fraudulent," Smith said, "This really raises a question for the next session of the Legislature, whether Nevada needs to substantially beef up the penalties for unemployment fraud."

Smith said the people he's talked to at DETR say fraudulent claims are fairly common but there is almost no penalty for it. He said that people who get caught can get excluded from getting benefits in the future but no one is "sitting in the penitentiary for unemployment fraud," or at least very few.

He said he believes it is incumbent upon the Legislature to address some of the problems at the unemployment that have come to light because of the pandemic. 

"This has been an issue that is usually out of sight and out of mind, because for the most part, Nevada's economy has been pretty darn good but when you have these emergencies, and this is kind of an unprecedented one, the flaws really show," he said, "I think that's what we're seeing here."

On the city of Las Vegas' contract with the ambulance service AMR

The city is looking to renew the contract even though the company has paid thousands of dollars in fines for not providing timely service during emergencies.

"I think what this is is it's an interesting study," he said, "But the fact is, that annually, whoever has that contract, and its generally been AMR, penalities are not uncommon."

He said that even if an ambulance service is on time most of the time it can be penalized for the few times it is not on time. In AMR's case, it adds up to around $600,000 over the last year.

"The number, although it's a bit shocking, it also raises a question of: Would more competition be better?" he said.

He said if another company were to take a piece of that contract both taxpayers and a person in an emergency are probably going to benefit from that. 

"But it does raise the question of whether the city council and city staff are rushing through this process or are going to do something like open it up and discuss it publically so that people can learn more about what the contract entails, how many millions of dollars its generating etc," Smith said.

He said that they've been talking about the issue of one or two companies controlling the ambulance service in Southern Nevada for a long time and every once in awhile the discussion flares up again.


On new books about Las Vegas

"David Schwartz's new book, he's the great gaming historian at UNLV, it's called 'At the Sands: The Casino That Shaped Classic Las Vegas, Brought the Rat Pack Together, and Went Out With a Bang.'

I have read it. It's great. It's great for nostalgia buffs like me. It is also a really insightful backstory to how the casino industry worked and probably how it works to this day to one degree or another."

"There's another book by Matthew O'Brien, the journalist who chronicled the folks living in the tunnels under the Strip around in the storm drains. He has a followup to that called 'Dark Days, Bright Nights: Surviving the Las Vegas Strom Drains.'

It's a book full of interviews with people who have experienced it, gone through it and have literally, and metaphorically, come out the other end."

"The book is called 'Stardust International Raceway: Motorsports Meets the Mob in Las Vegas 1965 to 1971.' I know that's a long title.     

You're going to really like this. It's well written and the photos are great.

It's a reminder, and this may be the way we market Las Vegas in the future, because everything old is new again at some point in Las Vegas, the marketing of motorsports has always... been a real component of the Las Vegas story.

And it's something that gets downplayed these days because we don't have a Grand Prix, those really spectacle events that we had 20, 30 years ago. But I think you're going to see a resurgence of that as the people who run the casino business think inside and outside the box to help Las Vegas make the comeback of all comebacks."



John L. Smith, contributor

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