One man owes DETR $30,000 alone
LAS VEGAS (KLAS) — The Nevada Department of Employment, Training and Rehabilitation (DETR) facilitates state and federal unemployment for hundreds of thousands of Nevadans — the department also overpaid tens of thousands of people and is asking for its money back, the 8 News Now Investigators found.
Phillip Daniel, a gig worker who lives in Las Vegas, owes DETR $30,000, he said.
“When I applied, they gave me the money, so I assumed, ‘OK everything’s good,’” Daniel said.
Daniel had applied for both state and federal benefits amid the coronavirus shutdown in 2020.
“What did you have to prove to them?” 8 News Now Investigator David Charns asked Daniel.
“I gave them a tax return,” Daniel said.
Within weeks, Daniel was receiving $600 in state unemployment benefits with about $100 to $200 added on per week from the federal government for basic expenses like food and rent.
But then, the emails started.
“At that point, I thought it was either a glitch in the system or a scam,” Daniel said.
It wasn’t a scam, but a demand. Daniel is one of tens of thousands of Nevadans who now owe money back to DETR.
“There were a lot of weeks that were paid out — that adds up quickly,” Chris Sewell, DETR’s director, said from his office in Carson City. Earlier this year, Republican Gov. Joe Lombardo appointed Sewell to oversee the department.
“We’re in a lot better shape than we were a few years ago,” Sewell said. “Are we out of it? No.”
DETR is facing a six-month backlog for current unemployment claims. He told a legislative committee earlier this month that with the resources in place now, the backlog would ordinarily take four years to clear. Sewell said he plans to hire outside help to accomplish it in a year.
As DETR employees work to get people money, a whole other team is fielding calls from people like Daniel who are trying to keep the money they have.
The department sent out more than 84,000 Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) overpayment notices, a spokesperson told the 8 News Now Investigators. For regular unemployment, more than 64,000 people received nearly 150,000 notices.
PUA was a federal program, which enabled states to give benefits to self-employed or gig workers. The program was funded through the CARES Act.
“How does someone get overpaid for unemployment?” Charns asked Sewell.
“They entered something wrong, something along those lines, something very simple,” he said.
Those owing money to the state can appeal, but federal Department of Labor guidelines limit what DETR can waive. Repayments that would be “contrary to equity and good conscience,” according to the Department of Labor, can be waived.
“For those people, I’m glad we got them the money but if there was a mistake made we also need to correct that,” Sewell said.
Some overpayments are fraudulent. DETR estimates it gave out more than $640 million in fraudulent payments from both federal and state coffers, Swell said. The department has collected more than $100 million back as of January.
“When establishing an overpayment, the state must determine who is at fault for the overpayment (i.e., individual, employer, state, or a combination thereof) and whether the overpayment is the result of claimant fraud; not all overpayments are fraudulent,” DOL guidance said. “If an overpayment is the result of claimant fraud, states may not waive recovery activities for the overpayment.”
“It’s not acceptable. I’m embarrassed,” he said.
“Do you understand the frustration from people who feel like they weren’t listened to for so many months and then they finally get a paycheck and it’s wrong?” Charns asked.
“I understand the frustration of not being paid timely and it’s unacceptable and we are going to correct it,” Swell said.
Daniel said he had several phone calls with DETR. The department denied all his appeals. He anticipates paying back the money month-to-month.
He said he never got an answer as to why their mistake is costing him.
“Do you think they should have looked at all that stuff before they paid you?” Charns asked.
“Obviously,” Daniel said.
The 8 News Now Investigators asked DETR how much the agency believes it overpaid. We did not receive an estimate as of Monday.