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John L. Smith On Nevada's Unemployment Debacle

(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.

Nevada unemployment hit 17 percent last week. That has never happened before.

But, of course, Nevada hasn’t dealt with a global pandemic in modern times either. More than 370,000 people have filed claims, or should we say, tried to file claims.

The coronavirus pandemic has caused stress throughout the medical and health care systems but it has also exposed the flaws at the Department of Employment, Training and Rehabilitation, which oversees unemployment insurance in the state.

On Tuesday, Gov. Sisolak announced the director of the department, Tiffany Tyler-Garner, was stepping down.

(Editor's note: This interview was taped before the announcement)  

Sisolak directed $5 million to a fund an emergency call center to relieve some of the pressure but many Nevadans are still saying they can’t get through or when they do operators are of little help.

And worse than that, they’re not getting their unemployment checks. State of Nevada contributor John L. Smith has been following this story. 

One of the biggest stumbling blocks appears to be computer systems that are unable to handle the influx of claims, Smith said.

“I’ve done a series of interviews with employees at DETR, the unemployment office if you will. The veterans there shrug about this,” he said. “This is not one of those things that anyone on the inside didn’t know was going to happen – if the system got stressed."

He said they shrugged because they knew there were problems with the system long before the coronavirus showed up on American soil.

In fact, the system had problems during the recession. Things had been tweaked a little and bugs fixed but that wasn't going to be enough.

“But it only has a certain level of capacity and that capacity is not suited for a state, as we’ve experienced in recent years, a real dynamic shift in employment,” Smith said.

So, even though the causes of unemployment were different 12 years ago, the outcome was the same. 

The state has been trying to address the problem. Call centers were established but Smith notes they only go so far because the center workers aren't trained workers with DETR.

“This was a stop-gap measure to try to – I guess – slow the flow and explain the process to people but those call center folks are not trained and they don’t really have answers,” he said.

Smith believes it is actually more frustrating because people stay on the phone all day waiting to talk to someone and when they finally do - the person can't answer their question.

Since the economy has been doing well over the past few years, fewer people were needed in the employment department, he said. When people left, they weren't replaced or people were laid off. 

“Then you get hit with this tidal wave and all of a sudden, you need trained employees and you don’t have them,” Smith said.

He said looking forward the state can either hire more workers or change the infrastructure of the department to be speedier and more nimble. Smith believes it is time for the department to think outside the box and look at things differently.

Mayor Carolyn Goodman's Comments

While a majority of lawmakers in Nevada, and around the country, criticized Las Vegas Mayor Carolyn Goodman's comments about reopening Southern Nevada, Smith noted that she did get support from libertarian and some conservative members of the media.

She was also lampooned online with videos and memes.

Smith said there is no doubt that Goodman's heart was in the right place and that's she's a good person, but he's not sure that's a relevant argument in this case. 

“It’s an argument for the quality of her personhood, whether that makes your rhetoric mainstream, I think is a different question," he said.

Plus, he said it's not just about disagreeing with the governor but she's also "disagreeing with scientists and medical experts," which is the part that bothers him the most.

For those who think Mayor Goodman should resign over the comments, Smtih said it's unlikely.

“This is Oscar Goodman’s wife. These are fighters. They might be dividers but they are also fighters,” he said.

The mayor has taken heavy criticism from a lot of people. Everyone from late-night talk show host Jimmy Kimmel, who is from Las Vegas, to D Taylor, the head the labor union, Unite Here. 

“But that is obviously not slowing the mayor. She’s kind of doubled and tripled down. I don’t know – can you quadruple down? I guess you can’t,” Smith quipped. 

John L. Smith, contributor 

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Joe Schoenmann joined Nevada Public Radio in 2014. He works with a talented team of producers at State of Nevada who explore the casino industry, sports, politics, public health and everything in between.