There’s one month left in the session. Here’s where the Legislature is on taxes, the death penalty and more.

The checkered flag is poised to start waving as state lawmakers enter the final month of the legislative session with a host of major policy and budget issues still unresolved, from repeal of the death penalty to raising taxes on the mining industry, wholesale changes to the K-12 funding formula and many other big-ticket items.

Tuesday’s meeting of the Economic Forum — the panel of five economists who forecast expected state tax revenue — is generally viewed as the green light for a host of budgetary issues and major bills to move to the finish line before the clock strikes midnight on sine die, May 31.

Most indicators are that the improving economy, coupled with rising COVID vaccination rates, will boost state tax revenues above what the Forum forecasted in December — about $8.5 billion over the next two fiscal years, or about $500 million less than the last two-year budget cycle.

Legislators have nonetheless proceeded based on the less-rosy budgetary picture, making tough cuts to education and health care programs that at times drew heated debate. While a recovering economy is expected to help alleviate some of those previously identified cuts, lawmakers say they’re still waiting on the bigger piece of the puzzle — U.S. Treasury guidance on how the state can spend the roughly $2.9 billion allocated through the recently passed federal American Recovery Act.

But without guidance soon, legislators say it's almost a guarantee that a summer special session will be needed to make a decision on how to dole out the one-time federal windfall.

“Every day from this day forward, we're running out of time,” Senate Finance Committee Chair Chris Brooks said. “(If) that happens at a certain point ... the only way we can do it is to close the budget, and then fill it back in at a later date, just because we'll run out of time.”

Gov. Steve Sisolak’s Chief of Staff Michelle White echoed those comments, saying that the governor’s office didn’t want to recommend allocating general fund dollars to needs that may later be met by an influx of federal funds — even on topics that might attract bipartisan support, such as funding a replacement unemployment insurance system, a broad expansion of preschool and more. Beyond the flexible $2.9 billion, other pots of federal funding with more specific earmarks are also expected.

“The governor wants to make sure that that's a process that can go through the appropriate budgetary process, and with the Legislature having full input,” she said. “We hope that's the case.”

Outside of the budget, legislators are beginning their typical ritual of rolling out ambitious bills in the waning days of the session, including a state-based public health insurance option, fixes to the oft-criticized unemployment insurance system, and a major transmission and electric vehicle omnibus bill. They’re also making progress on behind-the-scenes negotiations, including on a much-publicized effort to raise mining taxes and implementing a wholesale change to the decades-old K-12 funding formula.

But hopes in early May can often turn to tears by June, with many landmines and potential pitfalls awaiting lawmakers and major pending legislation. Here’s a look at the state of play for some of the biggest proposals on tap for the last month of the session.

A gold pour
Molten gold poured into ingot molds at a mine in northern Nevada. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

Mining taxes

The question of a potential mining tax hike has simmered in the background through the first three months of session. There’s been little public movement from lawmakers, but three proposed constitutional amendments raising the industry’s constitutional rate cap are playing the role of Chekov’s gun.

Though progressive advocates are clamoring for lawmakers to move forward on AJR1 — striking what they call the mining industry’s sweetheart deal in the Constitution and imposing a 7.75 percent tax on the gross proceeds of mining companies — discussions are ongoing about a potential deal that would lead to lawmakers dropping the proposed amendments in favor of a more immediate tax change.

Democratic legislators appear wary of sending a mining tax resolution to the 2022 midterm ballot and stirring up rural angst at a time when Gov. Steve Sisolak and other high-profile Democrats are up for re-election. The mining industry may also be wary of a ballot measure — voters in 2014 narrowly defeated a ballot question removing the language in the Constitution capping mining taxation, but that victory for the industry came during a midterm election that favored Republicans and had particularly low turnout (though many expect the 2022 midterms to be difficult for Democrats as well, given that the party controlling the White House historically does poorly in midterm elections).

“I said even last special session that if we can find common ground and some compromise that would avoid us having an expensive … exercise on the ballot, that we will certainly be open to that, and we still are,” Assembly Speaker Jason Frierson (D-Las Vegas) said on Monday.

Negotiations are still fluid — meaning things could easily collapse between now and the end of session. But lawmakers, including Senate Finance Chair Chris Brooks (D-Las Vegas), say that some sort of immediate mining tax increase may be the “best and only option” to raise revenue this session.

“I would prefer to see a collaborative approach between the industry and the Legislature to come up with a change in the current [taxation] structure that they have,” he said. “That would be a sustainable way to put money into our budgets in the short term, and not many years from now. I'm supportive of that approach.”

But any struck deal will lead to a math problem — lawmakers need at least a handful of Republican votes in the Assembly and Senate to clear the needed two-thirds threshold for a tax increase. 

One of Republicans’ most prominent concerns when the proposed constitutional amendments emerged over the summer was that the mining industry was surprised by them; this time around, the industry is at the table for discussions. Republican leaders in both chambers have not completely closed the door on a tax increase, but said they want more input in the process and would want any revenue hike be narrowly tailored and go to specific programs or functions amenable to both parties.

“I think that all tax bills should have been discussed from the get-go,” Senate Minority Leader James Settelmeyer (R-Minden) said in an interview. “I don't think it's proper to bring anything with 30 days left and say, ‘Oh, here you go. We made the deal, and now we want you to vote for it.’ Why not have a discussion with us?”

Hospital beds for infants as seen during a tour of the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit at Sunrise Hospital on Tuesday, Dec. 4, 2018. (Daniel Clark/The Nevada Independent)

State-based public option

One of the most heavily lobbied issues over the last month of the session will be the effort to implement a state public health insurance option — requiring insurers that bid to provide coverage to the state’s Medicaid population to also apply to offer a state-backed public option plan. 

SB420 was introduced in the Senate on Wednesday and sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro (D-Las Vegas) and has already been scheduled for a hearing Tuesday.

The legislation — dubbed “CannizzaroCare” — comes from public option efforts in past sessions, including a 2017 effort to allow Nevadans to buy into the state’s Medicaid program, (which the Legislature approved but that was vetoed by Gov. Brian Sandoval), and a 2019 study lawmakers approved to look into the possibility of allowing Nevadans to buy into the state’s Public Employee Benefits Program (PEBP) health plan.

The legislation is backed by a cadre of public health groups (including health districts in Washoe and Clark counties) and progressive organizations, but has attracted an organized opposition effort from doctors, hospitals and health insurance panning the legislation as an “unaffordable new government-controlled health insurance system.” 

Death with dignity

The latest in a long line of efforts to legalize a process allowing terminally ill patients to self-administer life-ending medication prescribed by a physician hasn’t made much movement since it was referred without recommendation out of committee by the first committee deadline in early April

The bill, AB351, was referred to the Assembly Ways and Means Committee shortly after, where it’s sat ever since. But bill sponsor Edgar Flores (D-Las Vegas) said he was confident about the bill’s chances — adding that he expected it to come up for a hearing and likely vote at some point once the budget committee finishes processing more straightforward agency bills.

“Eventually we'll have an opportunity to have a hearing there, and then hopefully get it to the floor,” he said. “And I'm confident that that's where it's at now. Obviously, things may change, but I think that's where we're at now.”

Flores said he had also spoken with the state’s Department of Health and Human Services, and believed the agency would take its fiscal note (estimated cost to implement) off the bill.

The concept has divided lawmakers, and not always along strict party lines. Assembly Minority Leader Robin Titus (R-Wellington) said she had struggled with the bill; her libertarian side supported giving patients those rights, but thought that many of the concepts including limiting a coroner’s investigation and timelines in the bill were improper. 

“I have real issues with those things, apart from my struggle with does a person have a right to decide how they end their life,” she said.

The Northern Nevada Correctional Center in Carson City, Nevada
The Northern Nevada Correctional Center in Carson City, Nev., is seen on Wednesday, June 12, 2019. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

Death penalty

Members of the Assembly recently voted along party lines to abolish the death penalty, pushing the proposal as far as it’s ever been in Nevada after fits and starts in recent sessions. But the bill hasn’t been touched in the Senate, where both the committee chair responsible for processing it and the Senate majority leader are prosecutors whose boss — Clark County District Attorney Steve Wolfson — has been vocal in favor of keeping capital punishment.

Gov. Steve Sisolak has at times expressed unqualified opposition to the death penalty, and on other occasions said he would support it for extreme cases, such as the Oct. 1 mass shooting. 

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairwoman Melanie Scheible has said that the bill could move forward if the sponsor can come with an amendment that is acceptable to the governor, but bill presenter Assemblyman Steve Yeager — while acknowledging he wants to make progress — says he’s not sure whether he and abolition supporters would accept a watered down version of the bill.

Others, including leaders of the Nevada State Democratic Party, say the onus is on senators to at least give the bill the courtesy of a hearing. In a video not widely circulated before this week, Scheible affirmed unequivocally at the Battle Born Progress Progressive Summit in January that she supported the quest to end the death penalty.

Offices of the Department of Employment, Training and Rehabilitation in Las Vegas. (Daniel Clark/The Nevada Independent)

DETR bill

Republicans have latched on to one of the most prominent failings of the executive branch — massive backlogs in an inundated unemployment claims system — as one of their top priorities this session. Lawmakers of both parties often mention the emails they have received from claimants desperate for stalled benefits.

Senate Republicans have met with claimants in the glitchy Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) and hinted for weeks that they would introduce legislation to address issues identified in a lawsuit brought by PUA claimants, such as the lack of communication between a regular unemployment and PUA computer system. They also have been publicly critical that the Department of Employment, Training and Rehabilitation loan policy bill, SB75, makes technical changes to the regular unemployment program but does not speak to some of claimants’ marquee complaints.

Though Republicans’ bill, SB419, dropped last week, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Chris Brooks described it as a “stunt” and likely dead on arrival because it proposes spending $40 million from the strained general fund on a multi-year modernization project.

Brooks said the ambitious project should wait until the latest round of federal funding comes through. Democrats have listed a modernization project as a top priority in a framework on how to spend the money, and say they expect the federal guidance will allow such a use.

White said Democrats are in agreement with recommendations made by a governor-appointed unemployment strike force led by former Assembly Speaker Barbara Buckley.

“We have to make sure that anything that we've identified last year that could be better, that we're making all efforts to change now that funding … will be available, pending eligibility,” White said.

DETR officials have said it could take up to a year to design a request for proposals laying out exactly what the state wants out of the IT overhaul. In the meantime, the governor’s budget proposes a modest $1 million over the biennium for contractors to help resolve close to 2,000 technical issues of various sizes within the benefits system.

Students stand in line at Wengert Elementary School for the first day of in-person learning on Monday, March 1, 2021. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)


Release of the long-awaited report from the statutorily-created Commission on School Funding last week laid bare what many lawmakers and public education advocates have long suspected — moving Nevada to the national average in per-pupil school funding will cost more than $2 billion over a decade and hundreds of million of dollars in additional revenue every year.

The report recommended that lawmakers implement major changes to the current sales and property tax systems, but those general proposals have largely fallen flat. On property tax changes, Brooks said he “absolutely” agrees changes are needed but “I don't think now's the time to do it” as the state continues to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Frierson in a previous statement panned the sales tax as regressive but signaled support for restructuring the mining tax and bringing in revenue from short-term rental companies such as Airbnb. 

"With regards to other revenue structures, many take time and robust stakeholder outreach and that has not been something we have had during this session," Frierson said.

Still, lawmakers are moving forward with plans to accelerate a shift to the new “Pupil-Centered Funding Formula,” an update to the dated past funding formula initially approved by legislators in 2019. Many of those budget details, including promises to implement various hold harmless protections to avoid massive overnight funding losses for rural school districts, are still in the works.

Some Republicans have expressed openness to increase funding for education if it has direct ties to student outcomes and is allocated in a transparent manner; they fear that it could otherwise be swept up into collective bargaining agreements. They also have bristled at the shift toward the new funding formula, which has reshuffled the deck on some of their party’s most significant legislative accomplishments — a series of “categorical” programs targeted toward specific student groups with special needs that flourished under unified Republican control of the governor’s office and Legislature in 2015.

Settelmeyer cautioned that Republicans would only be likely to support tax increases directly tied to targeted education spending (the so-called “categoricals,” which include programs such as Read by Grade 3, and Zoom and Victory schools). He said the odds of starting a discussion on a “bipartisan way of how to get there” didn’t bode well at this late stage in the session.

“That's nothing new. Education has always wanted more money,” he said. “Republicans have shown consistently, if it goes to a purpose, we'll have a discussion. You want it to just go to the same system? I think we tend to be a little bit less likely to agree.”

Priscilla Vilchis, CEO of Premium Produce, inspects a cannabis bud at her grow facility in Las Vegas on Tuesday, Dec. 4, 2018. (Jeff Scheid-Nevada Independent)


A bill to authorize cannabis consumption lounges seeks to resolve a longstanding conundrum in the state — that using cannabis is legal, but consuming it anywhere outside a private home is illegal. It stands at odds with an assumption that drove much investment in the Nevada marijuana industry — that tourist consumption would make the Silver State’s cannabis industry punch above its weight.

The measure, AB341, is described — even by the director of the Cannabis Compliance Board — as the most promising vehicle for diversifying an industry with upper ranks that skew white and male. “Social equity” elements of the bill would give a competitive advantage to lounge operators who have been adversely affected by the War on Drugs, bringing new players into an industry characterized by extremely high barriers to entry and fierce competition for a limited number of licenses.

A similar consumption lounge concept failed late in the 2019 session, but that was before the Cannabis Compliance Board had formally assumed regulatory oversight of the industry. Proponents are optimistic that with a focused regulatory body in place, the state is now ready to take a step toward lounges.

The bill has been parked in the Ways and Means Committee because of the estimated $3 million the Cannabis Compliance Board would have to spend to support the projected 30 new positions needed to regulate scores of consumption lounges. Marijuana regulation is generally self-supported by licensing fees, although the board has not yet estimated how much revenue the lounges would bring in to balance out the ledger.

“I'm hopeful it's gonna move,” said Assemblyman Steve Yeager (D-Las Vegas), the bill’s sponsor, adding that it would likely be one of the last things finished in the session. “I just think it's gonna sit there for a while, because we have to close sort of everything else … before we can really have a discussion about what might be available to satisfy that fiscal note.”

Another potential wrench in the wheels is that the bill requires a two-thirds majority vote, which means it’s possible Republican-raised concerns about people driving after consuming marijuana could sideline the bill.

Asked about the possible reemergence of a policy allowing coveted dispensary licenses for applicants who did not win them in a contentious 2018 licensing round, Gilles said the governor’s office is not committing to any policies on that front, citing many moving parts, including ongoing litigation.

“I will be happy to engage in any conversations with folks if there's a proposal that's worth ... being worked through the Legislature that's going to resolve everybody's issues and everybody's concerns,” he said. “I don't know that that's possible.”

Tesla Model X with doors up
A Tesla Model X as seen during an NV Energy and NDOT Electric Vehicle Guest Drive Event at Bruce Trent Park in Las Vegas on Saturday, Oct. 26, 2019. (Daniel Clark/The Nevada Independent)

Energy policy

One of the biggest remaining policy-focused bills yet to drop is Sen. Chris Brooks’ forthcoming major energy policy bill, which is expected to be introduced sometime this week.

Brooks has described the provisions of the bill in past interviews — it will require a $100 million investment by NV Energy to facilitate greatly expanded electric vehicle charging infrastructure, while doubling down on transmission infrastructure — aimed at finishing NV Energy’s proposed Greenlink transmission project, which utility regulators partially approved in March

On Friday, Brooks said that those portions and others previously described — including adoption of “tenant solar,” allowing utility-scale battery storage projects to access renewable energy tax abatement programs, and moving the state to a larger wholesale electric market would all be included in the legislation.

Brooks reiterated that there were no surprises in the forthcoming bill, and he said the goal was to start the state on major transmission projects as soon as possible — saying that while the Public Utilities Commission made the right choice in the most recent transmission case, lawmakers needed to sign off on any major policy push toward greater transmission infrastructure. 

“It’s not the PUC’s job to encourage economic development in the state of Nevada, it's the PUC’s job to keep the lights on,” he said. “And so the argument that we need transmission, so that we can become a regional hub for transmission in the West, and so that we can attract economic activity to our state, is not necessarily the regulator's job... it's the policymakers and legislator’s jobs and the governor's job to give that message.”

Enrique, who was recently evicted from his home, poses for a photograph in a Las Vegas neighborhood on Thursday, Nov. 12, 2020. (Daniel Clark/The Nevada Independent)

Housing and rental assistance

Gov. Steve Sisolak has said that the state extension of the eviction moratorium, which runs through May at the state level but is backed up by a federal moratorium that lasts through June, will be the final one. But lawmakers are working on a bill that creates a “glide path” from the eviction ban into normalcy, and ushers out the hundreds of millions of dollars the state has received in rental assistance but has struggled to get out to people quickly.

“As we're coming up to the end of the moratorium, we need to figure out a way to even further ... perfect the way in which we get those dollars into the hands of landlords,” said Scott Gilles of the governor’s office. 

Gilles said the governor’s office doesn’t think they can get around a federal government restriction that prevents payments directly to a landlord — with no tenant involvement — but the legislation aims “to ensure that a tenant who wants to engage and take advantage of the rental assistance dollars will ultimately have that opportunity.”

Assemblyman Steve Yeager (D-Las Vegas) said discussions include how “we can slow the eviction process enough so that the monies that are there get used” and whether there are other pots of less-restricted money that could help tenants who don’t qualify under newer, stricter federal rules setting income limits or landlords who are having trouble securing the required tenant cooperation.

It’s still unclear whether the bill would have provisions that prevent landlords from immediately evicting a tenant after receiving overdue back rent through the assistance program. 

“We're looking at … whatever options are there to keep people in their homes and if there's some enticement for a landlord to be paid these dollars or ... have some sort of agreement going forward through the mediation program,” Gilles said. “Obviously that's the intended result.”

AFSCME workers prepare to unionize
Ken Edmonds, a developmental support tech at Desert Regional Center, reads a statement before filing for recognition as AFSCME with the Government Employee Management Relations Board in Las Vegas on Friday, Sept. 20, 2019. (Daniel Clark/The Nevada Independent)

State worker collective bargaining

Another potential hurdle in the rush to finish the session will come in the novel process of approving collective bargaining agreements for state workers — the first-ever undertaking since lawmakers expanded bargaining rights to state employees in 2019.

In theory, the bargaining units (representing a swath of state workers) are supposed to come to a tentative agreement with the state’s Department of Administration, go for approval to the state’s Board of Examiners (composed of the governor and other statewide elected officials), and is then transmitted to the Legislature as a budget amendment, prior to the end of session.

However, a spokeswoman for the Department of Administration said Friday that only one agreement (with the Nevada State Law Enforcement Officers Association) out of the seven recognized bargaining units is ready to go before the Board of Examiners. 

The agency said it does not “currently have a timeline” for bringing forward agreements with bargaining units represented by AFSCME (which represents four) and is still negotiating tentative agreements with two other units — the Battle Born Fire Fighters Association and Nevada Police Union.

The 2019 legislation authorizing state workers to collectively bargain also contains provisions giving the governor the final say on wages or other monetary compensation despite any approved collective bargaining agreement.

White said that the main focus right now was timing, and getting budget amendments over to lawmakers with enough time to spare before the end of session.

“Anyone could look at it right now with 30 days left and say that's a tight timeline, and it is a tight timeline but, we feel confident in our partnership throughout this process to negotiate in good faith and get everything done that we can possibly get done in these negotiations and agreements,” she said.

Mirage guest room attendant Perla Padilla, defending champion in the Housekeeping Olympics bed making event, cleans a room on Monday, Oct. 8. (Jeff Scheid-Nevada Independent)

Right to Return

A bill presented by Senate Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro (D-Las Vegas) that guarantees hospitality workers the right to return to the job they lost during the pandemic has not advanced since it had a public hearing in early April. But the measure, SB386, has a waiver that exempts it from legislative deadlines, and parties have been negotiating to address stark disagreements between union and business interests.

“Our whole goal is making sure people can get back on the job and so it's something we're monitoring. I think there are some real, real challenges that people are trying to work through. And that's kind of the last update I've had on it,” White said on Saturday. “So I think we'll see. I think it's something that folks want to find a resolution on.”

Debate over land grant status has renewed the north-south divide in Nevada higher education

Since the inception of UNLV in the 1950s as Nevada Southern, a pervasive narrative has persisted among higher education advocates in the South: UNLV is the stepchild to UNR, constantly given short shrift in budget negotiations and suffering in the long term as a consequence, even as Las Vegas has emerged as the state's economic center over that same time period.

But is that perception a reality? 

The truth of the matter, according to more than a dozen interviews with those involved with higher education policy past and present, is in the eye of the beholder. There are vast — often uncontrollable, sometimes highly personal — forces putting different pressures on different actors. Regents, lawmakers, university presidents, faculty advocates and even the voting public all push and pull on a system that starts at the ballot box and ends in byzantine negotiations over full-time equivalent headcounts, weighted student credit hours and multi-million dollar budgets. 

Heading into this year’s legislative session, however, there was an outward display of unity in the face of devastating budget cuts triggered by the pandemic. Between UNR, UNLV, system administrators, community colleges and even regents, there was little daylight on major issues from scholarships to sexual harassment policy to the need for “shared sacrifice” in the face of yet more budget cuts.

And thus far, more than halfway through the session, that unity has disappeared on just one issue: SB287, a bill sponsored by Sen. Dallas Harris (D-Las Vegas) that would formally acknowledge existing legal opinions that say UNLV and the Desert Research Institute are included alongside UNR as federally recognized land grant institutions. 

Originally created under the Morrill Act of 1862 and later expanded through additional federal legislation, the land grant program was meant to spur the development of universities nationwide through the wide availability and sale of federal land. Today, the designation has morphed into a historic signifier of a college's commitment to agricultural education or programming, and more broadly allows land grant schools to apply for specialized grants through the U.S. Department of Agriculture. 

The bill passed unanimously out of the Senate Education Committee Friday — a committee with no Northern Nevada members — clearing the first hurdle on its way toward becoming law. With it has come a renewed focus on decades of history and perceptions of that history that, advocates said, have placed UNR on a pedestal to the detriment of UNLV. 

The land grant question

The primary purpose of SB287 is a formal recognition of what several legal opinions, including those at the Legislative Counsel Bureau and the Nevada System of Higher Education, have already concluded: that the Constitution names Nevada’s “State University” as a land grant institution, and that university — the University of Nevada — includes not only UNR, but also UNLV and DRI. 

Proponents have said that because the federal government only formally recognizes UNR as the state’s sole land grant school — it was founded 147 years ago as a result of the Morrill Land Grant Act, the foundational federal law from which this entire issue derives — SB287 has become a necessity in providing UNLV equal access to apply to competitive federal grants in land grant-specific fields. 

Eric Chronister, Dean of the College of Sciences at UNLV, said the current system has created a legal limbo where, even though the university’s faculty want to contribute research under land grant-specific grants offered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, “they’re not able to participate.” 

“I'm sort of an absolutist,” Chronister said. “Either someone needs to say, ‘UNLV can never be a land grant institution,’ and our faculty need to know they can never apply for these things, or someone needs to say that, in fact, we are, so that they can. It's really that simple.”

When it became clear that lawmakers would pursue a formal recognition of land grant status for UNLV and DRI this year, university administrators and key donors jumped at the chance to secure access to more research funding at a time when the institution is seeking to solidify and maintain a status as a top-tier research university. 

In a letter sent to the Senate Education Committee Thursday and co-signed by UNLV President Keith Whitfield and major business leaders from the Vegas Chamber, the Council for a Better Nevada and the Las Vegas Global Economic Alliance, UNLV argued that the issue is primarily about providing “equal and fair” access to federal resources. 

“By expanding accessibility to federal grants that have land-grant requirements, this legislation  allows UNLV to grow the research pie by bringing additional federal dollars to Southern Nevada  and the state as a whole,” the letter said. “It is our commitment that existing programs will continue to serve the Southern Nevada community.” 

But the proposal has triggered deep skepticism from some administrators and faculty at UNR, where the criticism of SB287 has been most fierce. Most northern critics, including UNR President and former Gov. Brian Sandoval, have contended that this is not about denying UNLV land grant status or enshrining UNR as the sole land grant institution. Instead, they say, it’s about the financial gutting of crucial programs already entrenched at UNR for little gain elsewhere. 

Key to this point of the debate is the other half of having land grant status: the Cooperative Extension. Federal land grant money, supplemented with county-level taxes, supports a number of well-liked county-level agricultural and educational programs, including 4-H and other youth programs. 

Extension funding has become the core of the issue for UNR, just as it was when the issue last emerged in 2017. Then, as governor, Sandoval vetoed a similar bill, AB407, in part on the grounds that it would endanger program funding at UNR without providing the means to replace those programs at UNLV. 

“There's a fixed amount of money that we receive, that the state receives, and then the university receives programmatic money associated with this land grant status,” Sandoval said in an interview with The Nevada Independent Monday. “As a result of this bill, it will split that three ways and dilute that money which will make a two-thirds reduction, I guess you could say, from UNR’s budget in that regard, which will obviously have an effect on services.”

Indeed, as Southern Nevada lawmakers have moved to raise the land grant issue again this year, Clark County Commission Chair Marilyn Kirkpatrick co-authored an op-ed with UNR Extension Director Ivory Lyles in The Nevada Independent arguing for additional state funding for Extension programs, not less. 

“Now more than ever, residents in all corners of Nevada need access to the educational programs and services provided by Extension, to help grow their businesses, educate their children, improve their health and nutrition, preserve our natural resources, and more,” the pair wrote. “It is an essential time to begin returning to the formerly equitable state-county partnership.”

As originally worded, SB287 would have severely restricted Extension funding almost overnight, essentially splitting limited programmatic funding three-ways with little consideration for existing programs. 

That provision will likely be changed in the final bill language under an amendment proposed by the Nevada Association of Counties, which has suggested leaving the formal process of divvying up land-grant related funding to the discretion of the NSHE chancellor, Melody Rose. 

The chancellor would then become the chief arbiter of the issue in creating a committee of land grant stakeholders, including the director of the Extension, with the end goal of creating an equitable funding structure for all parties to be approved later by regents and, finally, by legislators in the 2023 session. 

Even so, Rose said the Nevada System of Higher Education is formally remaining neutral on SB287, in keeping with Board of Regents policy established when the issue arose in 2017. 

“We respect the Legislature's authority to engage in this policy analysis, and my role as chancellor is to advance all of the institutions within the NSHE system,” Rose said. “And under the current configuration of the bill, if it passes, the implementation committee would provide me an opportunity to convene the stakeholders, and in a moment of pause, consider all of the options, all of the implications and craft agreements between the presidents and bring them forward after careful consideration.”

But even as the amendment has emerged as a compromise among system and county administrators, concerns remain at UNR that SB287 could hobble the institution’s Extension funding by the time the dust has settled. 

“That amendment does nothing to cure the issue of whether the dilution of those scarce federal funds by designating DRI and UNLV as land grant institutions does not increase the pie,” Sandoval said. “It doesn't allow for more eligibility for more of those programmatic funds. That is fixed. That's a formula that says that it's fixed on the amount of agriculture that's going on in the state and some other factors. And the counties provide the matches to that program, to the Cooperative Extension, so all those formulas and things would be affected.”

And as much as the issue of the Extension has become the political hot potato at the core of the debate over SB287, it is not the only factor driving northern opposition to the otherwise simple recognition of land grant status. 

Land grant institutions across the country are deeply rooted in the history of higher education itself, developed as part of a plan in the mid-19th century to lay the groundwork for a nationwide public agricultural and “mechanic arts” education as the U.S. rapidly settled the West. 

Tracing its roots back to a class of just seven students in Elko in 1874, what would become the University of Nevada, Reno was the sole university in the state — let alone the sole land grant institution — for almost 100 years (the then-Nevada Southern University in Las Vegas only graduated its first class in 1964, and the name “UNLV” was not adopted until 1969).

The national history, observers said, has become a powerful point of pride and prestige for any and all long-time land grant schools, not just UNR. But it also has developed a sense of specialization, one driven by more than a century of focus on agricultural and mining education and research, that has given rise to an argument that no school is better positioned to deliver land-grant related agricultural programs in Nevada than UNR.  

“I think for us, it's more that we have years of history of building programs specific to agriculture, specific to our mining industry or ranching industry — those things right,” UNR Faculty Senate Chair Amy Pason said. “That's why we exist, that's why UNR, as an institution, exists.”

Pason said that part of the issue for faculty is a concern that their efforts in establishing and developing such programs would be rendered “meaningless” if “anybody can be named land grant without having to do the same kind of programs or responsibilities that we do.” 

More than that, faculty and administrators at UNR have questioned the real-world benefit of UNLV’s land grant designation in terms of access to federal grants, suggesting it would endanger the Extension at the risk of doing little to change the federal-grant landscape in Nevada. 

Sandoval said “it wouldn’t really change anything” and that UNLV and DRI would “still be able to go after the grants” they already are pursuing. Pason, similarly, said it was a minimal change, that “it doesn’t actually do anything if we just start naming our institutions ‘land grant.’”

Chronister pushed back on those characterizations as “just wrong,” pointing in part to work being done in conjunction with mining companies from the university’s geoscience department and adding that “not enough people know about UNLV.” 

“In a way, it's sort of indicative of — there's a reason why people don't know enough about UNLV, because we're not given the [land grant] status that we should,” Chronister said.

He added that he would not be “so conservative” about the raw dollar amounts that could be at stake should UNLV be recognized federally as a land grant institution, saying in part that “we know we can’t go to the state and ask for more dollars, we just want the opportunity to compete for the federal dollars that support the things we’re expert at.”

But even outside the wonky arguments over legal intent, funding and research, there remain deeper concerns over the politics of a policy like SB287 — namely who is pushing such a proposal, and why they are looking to get it passed now. 

There is open suspicion among some SB287 critics of the decidedly business-oriented backers of SB287, namely the Council for a Better Nevada (CBN), which has backed and presented several pieces of higher education legislation this session alone.

SB287 is the only measure proposed by the group this session that would directly and explicitly benefit UNLV, but critics point to a pattern of involvement that suggests the donors maintain more control of such policy decisions than UNLV itself. 

“My understanding is that, although UNLV isn't sponsoring the bill, they do support the bill, but it isn't sponsoring the bill,” Sandoval said. “The bill was presented by Sen. Dallas Harris (D-Las Vegas) and then through testimony of Maureen Schafer on behalf of the Council for a Better Nevada, which in my understanding, is the entity that is pushing this bill aggressively. ”

CBN — a non-profit funded by Clark County business leaders seeking to “improve the quality of life in Nevada” — has for several years been openly involved in a number of high profile higher education policies and projects, including a push to remove regents from the Constitution through Question 1 last year.

Schafer, executive director of CBN and the former founding chief of staff at the UNLV School of Medicine, pushed back on CBN’s Northern Nevada critics in part by saying “there’s a lot of them who are never going to realize that there’s a Southern Nevada to Northern Nevada.”

“Change is really hard, and we're just taking the hill right now, you know,” Schafer said. “But I don't mean to demagogue Northern Nevada, it's just that 100 or so people in those positions who just think it's always going to be this way.”

The North-South divide

Schafer’s argument, and to an extent UNLV’s argument over equity with SB287, emerge from an entrenched history of disparities between universities North and South, in which one institution time-and-time again arose as the perceived “has,” while the other was relegated to the perceived “has-not.”

These arguments emerge in part, however, as a matter of perspective. Robert Dickens spent three decades lobbying for UNR, and in that time witnessed the shift of a north-south rivalry from athletics, “where that kind of rivalry is endemic in higher education,” to politics, economics and academics, where he said it had become a destructive force. 

Dickens said that as new Las Vegans — having come from elsewhere — looked to enmesh themselves in a new city, they sought the “Rebels” of UNLV as a key cornerstone of that urban community. 

“In the process, over time, of becoming a Southern Nevadan, you also drank the Kool Aid about the sectionalism,” Dickens said. “And it's rampant … And that creates a conflicting challenge for all decision makers, because you have two different institutions doing the same kind of business, both performing well … and they want to move on and take care of the things that are their missions. And, frankly, when this stuff enters the Nevada Legislature or the executive branch, it becomes deleterious.”

But, Dickens said, that sectionalism arose for a bevy of reasons, from the origins of UNLV as Nevada Southern to the geographic proximity of UNR to the Legislature in Carson City to the relationships between some UNR presidents and lawmakers to the high turnover of leadership at UNLV. 

Also key to this dynamic, he said, was the frequently complex and opaque manner in which the state’s budget was finalized by lawmakers. That process was for years led in the Senate by Republican Sen. Bill Raggio, a famed friend of UNR (his name now adorns the university’s College of Education) who chaired the powerful Senate Finance Committee from 1993 until 2005. 

Barbara Buckley, a former Democratic assemblywoman from Clark County who served from 1994 to 2011, including a stint as Assembly speaker from 2007 to 2011, said “it was no secret” that Raggio played a major role in how higher education funding was distributed.

“In the 90s and the 2000s, there were not as many representatives from Southern Nevada as there are today, and the Senate leadership positions were controlled by legislators in Northern Nevada,” Buckley said. “And so historically, there was a perception, and many say a reality, that UNR received greater funding than UNLV.”

Buckley said the budgeting process then was as it is now, frequently “quick and frenzied,” leaving little time to assess detailed budgets like higher education. 

But even in Raggio’s absence, most observers agree that the most substantial budgeting differences between UNR and UNLV were not ironed out until the passage of an entirely new funding formula — one based on so-called weighted student credit hours rather than full-time equivalent headcounts — in 2011 and 2013. 

Even then, controversy reignited once a Las Vegas Review-Journal investigation revealed in 2016 then-Chancellor Dan Klaich had misled lawmakers during the formula revision process by presenting a letter to a committee under a consultant’s letterhead. 

Klaich denied wrongdoing and said that some emails presented by the Review-Journal story were meant as jokes, though he did eventually resign. Shortly after his exit, legislators drafted AJR5, a measure that would pull the regents from the Constitution as a means of increasing legislative oversight over the higher education system (that measure ultimately failed at the ballot box last year, though a similar bill has been revived this year as SJR7, a bill backed in part by CBN).

These examples are only a small slice of decades of political fighting over limited state resources for UNLV and UNR, fighting that included years of haggling over the future of the UNLV medical school or, following the Great Recession, the very survival of higher education in the face of briefly proposed 50 percent cuts

Today, it’s unclear whether regionalism extends beyond the realm of sports and such niche funding issues as SB287. Last year saw the appointment of new presidents at UNR and UNLV and a new chancellor, and the trio — alongside the other college presidents and the regents — have so far signaled unity on major issues being proposed by legislators. 

Even on budget cuts, the universities have toed a similar line, stating on one hand that the 12 percent cuts being pursued by lawmakers as part of the governor’s recommended budget will be devastating in the short term, but on the other hand that they understand the need for shared sacrifice if it means long term survival. 

SB287 will next head to a floor vote by the state Senate sometime before the first house passage deadline on April 20.

What Happened Here: A company town turned ghost town during the COVID shutdown starts to rebuild

The vehicles streamed into the pickup lines on a recent Monday, some with popped trunks awaiting cargo.

In a North Las Vegas parking lot, they inched toward a white tent, where workers loaded brown boxes and white plastic bags filled with food into cars, trucks and SUVs. The assembly line-like operation outside the Culinary Academy of Las Vegas popped up in the immediate aftermath of the COVID-19 shutdown to help thousands of furloughed workers put food on the table.

A year later, it hasn’t stopped. Instead, the Culinary Academy expanded and began allowing all community members to access the roughly 40-pound batch of fruits, vegetables, grains and meat — complete with recipe cards — designed to feed families.

As of early March, the food assistance program had donated 11.5 million pounds of groceries, or the equivalent of about 35 million meals. On any given week about 6,000 to 8,000 vehicles roll through the drive-through-style line, and that figure doesn’t include deliveries made directly to those in need who cannot leave their homes or food distributed at smaller pop-up sties.

“I can tell you that the lines aren’t getting any shorter at all,” said Mark Scott, chief executive officer of the Culinary Academy. “...This past year is really a hole fairly wide and fairly deep for people, and it’s going to be a long time before people are able to dig out.”

But across town another pickup line was seeing equal, if not greater, activity —  the passenger pickup area at McCarran International Airport. Hordes of flight-weary travelers, some donning face masks, scanned the line of cars as horns honked and doors opened and shut. 

A year ago, this was not the case. The normal hustle and bustle of a busy airport had been swiftly replaced by an eerie quiet.

Now, the two pickup lines — separated by miles and purpose — nod to the region’s hopeful but challenged circumstances. 

Nevada is, once again, healing, just as it did after the tourism industry was rocked by 9/11, the Great Recession and 1 October. Vaccination numbers are climbing, case numbers and hospitalizations remain relatively low and spring has brought forth not just tourists but an increasing sense of optimism about the future.

But the truth is Nevada’s healing has only ever been surface deep, its wounds still raw beneath and ready to break open at even the slightest injury. 

Amid all the talk of economic diversification over the last decade, experts say Nevada has failed to invest in the necessary level of change to build a more stable economy. The memories of past economic devastation often quickly fade as Nevada once again returns to boom times and trusts the glittering lights of the Las Vegas Strip to save it.

Some would say Nevada’s close relationship with business is what gives the state an edge. When Nevada struggled to secure necessary supplies for hospitals in the early days of the pandemic, for instance, gaming and mining companies donated millions of pieces of personal protective equipment, money and other resources through the governor’s private-sector COVID task force.

But Nevada’s reliance on industry to save the day has also time and time again left the state dependent and vulnerable. At first it was mining, an industry so valuable, and powerful, that it was granted a special, favorable taxation structure when the state’s Constitution was written in 1864. 

Then it was the casinos, who have so wholeheartedly opposed industry-specific taxes that they have gone so far as to support a widespread tax increase that would equally affect all larger businesses in Nevada. There was Tesla, Faraday Future, the Raiders and, now, Blockchains, all enterprises touted as the state’s next economic cure-all.

In its nearly 157-year history, Nevada has been unable to shrug off being a company town. This time, it’s put the state in the impossible position of choosing between saving its residents from COVID or financial devastation. 

Now, the question is whether, as the lights on the Las Vegas Strip grow brighter, Nevada will once again be drawn like a moth to flame or whether it will truly diversify its economy while fixing a long-ailing unemployment system. The question is what the future holds for Nevada’s workers — many of them workers of color — who are the lifeblood of the economy and the first ones to suffer when good times turn bad.

The question is whether history will once again repeat itself.

The shutdown was swift.

Six hours after Gov. Steve Sisolak announced on March 17 that nonessential businesses would be required to shut their doors to halt COVID-19’s advance on the state, all gambling activity statewide ceased. It was the first time Nevada’s lucrative gaming industry had been prohibited from operating since gambling was legalized statewide in 1931.

Other quintessential Nevada businesses, including strip clubs and brothels, and other everyday establishments, such as salons, gyms and malls, were given an extra 12 hours to wind down their businesses.

The decision hadn’t come as a shock to gaming establishments, many of which had been on multiple calls with the governor leading up to the decision and some of which had already been making plans to shutter operations in light of canceled bookings and an increasingly bleak future for the tourism industry. Billy Vassiliadis, longtime Las Vegas adman, estimated there was 80 to 90 percent agreement among the resorts by the time the governor made his decision that the shutdown had to happen.

Plus, some casino operators saw what was happening half a world away and started preparing. Casinos in Macao shut down for 15 days in February last year.

“I think we could see that it was going to be a very serious matter and definitely going to affect operations based on what we had seen happen in Macao,” said Virginia Valentine, president of the Nevada Resort Association. “But I don't think anyone knew just how big an impact there was going to be or that there would be extended closures.”

More than six months earlier, the Nevada Department of Employment, Training and Rehabilitation (DETR) had carried out “economic cycle planning,” preparations that recognized a 10-year streak of economic growth would inevitably come to an end and unemployment would grow. But the domino of casino closure announcements was ominous for then-director Tiffany Tyler-Garner.

“Over time, there's this growing concern of ‘oh my gosh, yet another employer is indicating that they're putting folks on leave’ … and that all those tens or hundreds, or whatever size those businesses were, were headed our way,” she said.

The prospect of shutting down the gaming industry was more complex than it perhaps appeared from the outside. For starters, some casinos scrambled to find padlocks to secure their entryways. Locks, as it turns out, were not a standard feature in the 24-hour establishments.

Casinos also had to quickly devise plans for counting and safely storing cash, either on site or transferring via armored trucks to banks. Sandra Douglass Morgan, former chair of the Gaming Control Board, said regulators were fielding call after call from casino operators who wanted to ensure they were in compliance with all the logistical and accounting matters. At the same time, gaming properties were handling people-centric problems, such as notifying and accommodating hotel guests and standing up employee assistance programs for the wave of people facing sudden furloughs.

“If we had to do it all over again, obviously we would have said, ‘Okay, you have a week to close,’ to make sure all that information was put into place, but we didn’t at the time,” Morgan said. “But everyone was very understanding.”

State officials within the Department of Business and Industry, meanwhile, scrambled to help other businesses figure out whether they were considered essential and, therefore, whether they were required to shut down. The initial list of essential businesses Sisolak announced could remain open was specific, if incomplete: Grocery stores, pharmacies, banks, hardware stores, truck stops, daycares, gas stations and health facilities.

That left the rest of the non-casino businesses in somewhat of a grey area. Workers at the Tesla Gigafactory, Allegiant Stadium and several marijuana dispensaries reported for work as usual on March 18, unclear whether their employers would be sending them home at noon.

Clarification came that afternoon — an hour after businesses were supposed to close — in the form of a “Risk Mitigation Initiative” document, which outlined 20 essential services and sectors. Among them were ones the governor hadn’t mentioned the previous night, including veterinarian services and pet stores, laundromats and dry cleaners, and auto repair services. Construction and mining businesses were, separately, granted permission to remain open as well.

But, at the time, there was little to no federal guidance about how essential businesses ought to remain open safely to protect themselves, their workers and their customers. So, state officials hurried to come up with their own guidelines. Terry Reynolds, director of the Department of Business and Industry, said the state ended up being about two or three weeks ahead of the federal Department of Labor in the guidance it released for Nevada businesses and employees.

“Businesses can’t wait three weeks,” Reynolds said. “They need to know what they need to know quickly.”

Some of the issues state officials grappled with included how to keep small banks, which were legally required to stay open during the shutdown, running when their employees fell ill, and how to help restaurants safely pivot to a takeout model as dine-in operations closed. Reynolds said some restaurants were able to successfully shift their operations.

“Others did not shift very well,” he added. “It was very unfortunate because I think a lot of those may not come back at all.”

Echo & Rig, a popular steakhouse near Summerlin, saw a massive uptick in customers visiting its on-site butcher shop during the initial shutdown period when only takeout was allowed, chef and owner Sam Marvin said. But that alone didn’t spare the restaurant from feeling the sting of no in-person dining. 

At least half the Las Vegas restaurant’s employees were furloughed, and Marvin said a loan from the Paycheck Protection Program, which was established early on in the pandemic to help small businesses make payroll, “made the difference in us surviving or not surviving.”

The restaurateur doesn’t hold a grudge against state officials. Compared with California, where he operates two restaurants, Nevada gave a much earlier green light to some in-person dining when the state started to reopen. Because of all the uncertainty surrounding the virus initially, Marvin said he didn’t disagree with the shutdown, though he acknowledges his opinion may differ from others in the restaurant industry who couldn’t hang on financially.

“How can you disagree if you don’t know better?” he said. “Better safe than sorry.”

Echo & Rig’s furloughed employees were just a small slice of the hundreds of thousands of employees who lost their jobs almost overnight, pushing Nevada unemployment to levels worse than those seen during the Great Depression. In April, more than 28 percent of Nevadans were unemployed, up from 3.6 percent in February.

Those hundreds of thousands of newly jobless Nevadans quickly overwhelmed the state’s unemployment system, which was accustomed to handling about 2,500 initial claims a week but received more than 92,000 as the shutdown began. In the past year, half a million Nevadans have collected at least one week of unemployment benefits out of a workforce of 1.5 million, and the agency has received nearly two million initial applications for benefits.

“We were in response mode, without knowing exactly what the floor or ceiling would be,” Tyler-Garner said.

DETR’s problems were numerous, including a staff that had atrophied over the past decade as the federal government drew down funding. Issues as small as a vacation payout to a claimant would trigger “adjudication,” or an analytical review, but Tyler-Garner estimates only about seven people in the agency were qualified to manage that step when the crisis hit, for example.

Early on, the federal government answered pleas to support gig workers ineligible for traditional unemployment by creating the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) program, but Nevada officials feared that adding PUA programming into the brittle system processing traditional claims would crash it and cut off claimants already receiving benefits. They bought a separate software product to administer PUA in the name of speed and IT stability, but it created a bifurcated system that bedevils claimants to this day.

Mike Powers, a guitarist who worked for a talent agency that dispatches musicians for gigs ranging from conventions to sidewalk entertainment, is one of them. From the first day he applied to PUA, the system flagged his Social Security number as tied to another existing claim, and he believes he’s stuck in limbo a year later because someone in California filed a fraudulent application in his name. 

Every day is a financial emergency, he says, but he holds out hope that he’ll someday emerge from the Byzantine system and claim the tens of thousands of dollars he believes he’s owed.

“I would hate to think that I was so close to solving the riddle and then, you know, it did not happen,” he said. 

Much of the messaging from Sisolak early on was about the public health crisis at hand and flattening the curve of what was at the time an unknown and deadly virus. But to the quarter of Nevadans who were unemployed and struggling to wend their way through the bureaucratic nightmare that was the state’s unemployment system, it often felt like they were being left behind.

Joshua Meltzer, 29, worked as a singing gondolier at the Venetian and switched to the business side of live entertainment just before the pandemic hit. But a year later, he hasn’t been paid unemployment, and after months of trying to make it with the help of friends, he left the state for Minnesota and is working a clerical job to make ends meet.  

He described the last year as a financial, emotional, philosophical and spiritual crisis all rolled into one. He’s always seen government as a force for great good, but its inability to help him has challenged that belief.

“I feel betrayed, in a way, by Nevada, which has been a place of … rejuvenation,” he said. “If that community doesn't take care of its own in crisis, I don't know if that can be my long term home anymore.”

Claimants have also criticized elected officials’ handling of the situation, from the governor failing to mention the unemployed in certain press conferences to formulaic responses when claimants poured out their hearts in desperate emails to their congressional representatives.

“The best thing you can do is just listen better and realize that there are people that are truly hurting,” Powers said. 

Reflecting back on his public communications to unemployed Nevadans, Sisolak said he “tried to speak to their plight.” He also said he wishes the state had an “army of people” to quickly work through the hundreds of thousands of unemployment claims that poured in, noting it can take up to an hour for a state worker to process some of the more complex claims.

But, mostly, he blamed yearslong underfunding and neglect of the state’s unemployment system. During a period of record low unemployment in 2019, DETR told lawmakers that after years of successive budget cuts, it was struggling to handle its call volume and expected to be able to handle only 2,800 phone calls a week in 2020.  

During the pandemic, a single claimant from Dayton reported calling DETR 2,200 times during a two-week period in April, and many others reported placing hundreds of fruitless calls a day.

“You've got a system that was basically ignored session after session after session,” Sisolak said. “Then when suddenly you're hit with a pandemic that you get claims that are 20, 25 times what you are normally getting, no system is going to work under that situation.”

To make matters worse, state officials were also tasked with sifting fraudulent claims from the legitimate ones. While DETR hasn’t quantified how many illegitimate claims were approved and how much the state paid out on those claims, they estimate they prevented billions of dollars of fraudulent payouts through blocking payment on hundreds of thousands of claims on which they couldn’t verify identity.

As of March 4, DETR reported there were 306,632 claims with pending identity issues that are suspected to be fraudulent. At least another 437,000 PUA claims were denied over identity verification issues in two rounds of mass disqualifications last year.

“The amount of fraud that was happening was unconscionable,” Sisolak said. 

But a focus on fraud has had unintended consequences for claimants. Amber Hansen, an administrator of a popular Facebook group for PUA claimants, said it casts a stigma on PUA applicants “that we’re fraudulent … some of us are inherently bad.”

“We still do have people that have eligible claims, and that need to be helped,” she said. “We have to kind of move off that issue.”

Jason Guinasso, a Reno attorney who studied DETR’s backlog as a court-appointed special master last year, said the unemployment agency has erred too much on the side of trying to control fraud, and is making policy “based on the exception, not the rule.” He compared it to a department store assuming all its customers showed up to steal.

“Imagine if they ran their store based on trying to stop shrinkage, and that's all they cared about,” he said. “Your experience going to Macy's to buy a dress would be a lot different than it would be if they were running their store to cater to the majority of people [who] are not there to steal.”

The governor praised the staff at DETR, which increased the number of people working on unemployment issues threefold by January and had many staffers working overtime to process unemployment claims under immense pressure, scrutiny and even threats, including to the director of the department. But he also acknowledged the state’s shortcomings.

“Could we have done a better job? Certainly we could have done a better job,” Sisolak said. 

As spring pushed toward summer and the number of people hospitalized with COVID-19 started to decline, the number of people unemployed because of COVID-19 creeped higher. Pressure mounted on Sisolak to start reopening the state’s economy. Leaders in some local jurisdictions signaled they weren’t going to wait for the governor’s lead, touting their own plans for reopening.

At the end of April, Sisolak announced the state would begin an “active transition” toward reopening that would start with some of the safest businesses, including indoor retail spaces, before progressing to the riskier establishments, such as casinos. At the time, he credited Nevadans’ “incredible discipline” in halting the spread of the virus.

The casinos had a model for reopening: Macao. Casinos in the special administrative region in China had already opened their doors again. But when they did, it was with significant capacity limits, social distancing at table games and slot machines, temperature checks and face masks. Resorts in Las Vegas could essentially take the Macao playbook, make a few adjustments for scale, and put it into practice.

Casino floors — known for their winding paths that keep gamblers wandering and shoving money into slot machines — would have considerably more elbow room. The Gaming Control Board issued a policy document in May spelling out some of the new rules of the trade.

Table games now have player limits: six people for craps, three for blackjack, four at roulette and poker tables. Some slot machines, meanwhile, were placed in an extended hibernation to make way for social distancing. Conversations also occurred around how to disinfect gaming chips without compromising their integrity.

And then there was the human aspect.

The Culinary Union lobbied hard for the approval of SB4 during a special legislative session last summer. The bill, which passed and was signed into law by the governor, shields many Nevada businesses from frivolous lawsuits related to COVID-19 — but only if the companies adhere to the strict, government-imposed health and safety protocols that prevent spread of the virus. Union officials pushed for the measure in honor of Adolfo Fernandez, a utility porter at Caesars Palace who died in June after falling ill with COVID-19.

Despite the bill’s passage, the union wants to see more done to protect hospitality workers, many of them on the front line interacting with people who have traveled to Las Vegas. D. Taylor, president of UNITE HERE, the parent organization of the Culinary Union, said he was unhappy that food service and hospitality workers weren’t prioritized higher up in the state’s vaccination schedule. Casino workers in Clark County did not become eligible for vaccines until Thursday. 

He framed it as both a safety and equity issue.

“Who are workers on the frontlines?” he said, referring to the union’s membership. “They’re predominantly female and people of color.”

For Las Vegas, as a tourist destination, the focus was not only on safety but how to effectively communicate to tourists how seriously the industry was taking precautions. This wasn’t the first time the city had to pivot its branding strategy. In the years after 9/11, the “What happens here, stays here” slogan was born. In the wake of 1 October, it was, “#VegasStrong” and a message of resilience.

But the city had never had to market itself in the middle of an ongoing public health crisis. In the weeks before casinos reopened, cases had been fluctuating. In early June, right around when casinos opened, cases started to climb.

"This one, you didn't know where we were going,” said Vassiliadis, CEO of R&R Partners, the ad agency for the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority. “It was like we were in this abyss, making decisions and consulting with folks with daily information that was fuzzy at best.”

The message Las Vegas ended up adopting was one that balanced safety with freedom. A weekend in Las Vegas, even with masks and social distancing, was still a lot more fun than a weekend stuck at home ordering DoorDash, Grubhub and Uber Eats.

“We didn't need to have the old Las Vegas for them to feel free,” Vassiliadis said. “They just needed more freedom than the restrictions they had been living under for the previous three months.”

There was just one catch: Sisolak didn’t announce a statewide mask mandate until 20 days after casinos reopened. While employees were wearing masks, it was up to casino patrons whether to don that extra layer of protection. In mid-June, the Gaming Control Board issued an industry notice that required patrons to wear face masks at table games if there was no barrier or shield separating the players and dealers.

Even Caesar himself — the statue version, that is —  wore a giant mask in a bid to encourage others to follow suit. By the second week casinos were open, Morgan, then the state’s chief gaming regulator, said it was clear many people weren’t heeding that advice.

“It was harder for casino staff to tell people to wear masks if it wasn't mandated,” she said.

The governor’s order, issued on June 24, turned the option into a requirement. But controversy surrounding the decision spilled into gaming properties where some security officers suffered injuries after upset guests lashed out when told to wear a mask, Morgan said.

“No one should have bodily harm being threatened because you’re just doing your job telling people to comply with the mask mandate,” she said.

Pre-opening visitor surveys showed it was a “much younger and more rambunctious crowd” that was eager to return to Las Vegas, Vassiliadis said. And those surveys were borne out in reality: The crowd that first returned to Las Vegas was made up of younger, healthier people who were less concerned about contracting the virus and more concerned about busting loose after months of quarantine, and low room rates meant that some of Las Vegas’s top properties were now affordable for younger people, particularly if they stayed two or three to a room.

In the wake of its reopening, Las Vegas saw fights, shootings and stabbings on the Las Vegas Strip. In response, resorts stepped up their security and the Las Vegas Metro Police Department increased its police patrols.

“Underscoring that's not tolerated here to a lot of those visitors, I think, changed the situation rather quickly,” Vassiliadis said. “I don't think we suffered any kind of reputational long-term hit. I know we haven’t.”

At the state level, the governor’s office sought to convey to surrounding Western states the tightrope Nevada was walking by trying to balance the state’s economic and public health needs. In some ways, Nevada needed the buy-in of surrounding states so that they would keep sending their residents to Las Vegas and not blacklist the state through a travel advisory.

Michelle White, Sisolak’s chief of staff, recalled having “candid, open conversations” with other members of the Western States Pact, a compact established early on in the pandemic between Nevada, California, Oregon, Washington and Colorado, about Nevada’s difficult situation.

“We have states around us who I think were exceptional in understanding the situation that we were in … and genuinely were rooting for us to be OK,” White said. “Being able to explain that to folks and talk through that I think was really, really helpful in our efforts.”

Still, at one point in early December, California — which is home to 1 in 5 visitors to Las Vegas — issued a travel advisory encouraging residents to avoid nonessential travel to other states; it was a little less a month after Sisolak had encouraged visitors to continue traveling to the state even as cases surged in Nevada.

“If there were times where [Western states] said, ‘You know, we're concerned for our residents in a surge and so we're going to require quarantine,’ that’s an acceptable, reasonable thing to do for other leaders who are concerned about their residents. The way it was discussed, at least, was never about in response to Nevada directly,” White said. “It was more of, ‘This is a step we're going to take, this is another mitigation measure we're going to take to try to slow the spread and the surge.’”

For other businesses, reopening would bring with it a host of questions: Would employees have to wear masks? Could they hold meetings in person? What happens if an employee tests positive for COVID-19? There were also industry-specific considerations. How should salons disinfect their equipment? Could movie theaters open their snack bars? Would vehicles need to be sanitized at car dealerships between test drives?

To answer those questions and more, the state authored a series of reopening guidelines. Reynolds, director of the Department of Business and Industry, said the state got feedback on reopening plans from a number of different industries, from the Retail Association of Nevada to the REALTORS.

“In most cases, they were extremely helpful in terms of giving us perspective on what to look at and what can be done to keep things going and what we needed to do, how we need to approach things in concert with the medical advice that we got,” Reynolds said.

But businesses had to make adjustments beyond those required by the state to stay financially afloat as they reopened under strict capacity limits. Echo & Rig, for instance, added more seating in a second patio area that had previously been largely unused and trimmed its menu — from 60 to 42 items — as a cost-containment measure. 

Some menu items went up in price as well to balance the ripple-effect felt throughout the supply chain. Restaurants are still dealing with changes in where they’re able to source certain food items, he said. Some of their beloved vendors went out of business.

Marvin, the restaurant's owner, was pleasantly surprised by the number of people willing to venture out and dine at Echo & Rig once it opened its doors. He’s hopeful that customers, at his restaurant and other eateries, will continue to offer them patience — knowing that things will still look and feel a bit different because of safety protocols and other changes designed to keep the businesses viable.

Once businesses reopened their doors, the next challenge was enforcement. Reynolds said state officials took a “one, two, three” approach, giving businesses guidance on how to come into compliance on their first two visits before issuing citations on the third visit.

“A lot of businesses basically just needed a little bit of training on how to do things,” Reynolds said.

To date, the state’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration has conducted about 13,000 first visits to businesses. Compliance with the state’s COVID-19 health and safety protocols is about 92 percent in Northern Nevada and 90 percent in Southern Nevada, though Reynolds noted that compliance on first visits has been 100 percent most weeks since January.

Reynolds said that of the businesses found to be not in compliance with the state’s rules, he estimates only less than 10 percent were truly thumbing their nose at the state’s requirements. 

“We were tough on the front end on a lot of these businesses, but I think now we’re seeing for the last six, seven weeks good compliance overall,” he said.

And some businesses that initially seemed uninterested in complying with the state’s guidelines eventually came around, Reynolds said. About $60,000 in health and safety-related fines were issued to Walmart before it came into compliance.

“All of a sudden, corporate culture came in and started working on it very strongly,” Reynolds said. “It just took time. Once they did, it grabbed hold and they’ve done well.”

Even as businesses began to heal, Nevada workers continued to struggle.

When nonessential businesses started opening in May and the 78-day casino shutdown lifted on June 4, it didn’t have the same lightswitch effect with unemployment. There were still 285,610 people seeking Nevada unemployment benefits the first week of March — nearly one in five people in the state’s labor force.

A report by the Anderson Economic Group, which has been following the economic effects of COVID-19, described the December jobs numbers as a “continued trend of lethargic recovery.” Between November and December, the leisure and hospitality industry lost 2,000 jobs in Nevada, though gains in other industries offset that.

Only about 50 percent of the members of the Culinary Union, which represents roughly 60,000 resort employees across the state, including guest room attendants, cooks and porters, have returned to work since last year, though their work hours may not be the same. At the height of the shutdown, 98 percent of the union’s members were furloughed.

“Our industry — the hospitality industry overall — has been the hardest hit,” said Taylor, UNITE HERE’s president, said. “Now, we always see signs of life coming back in certain areas, which is great, but until people feel very safe travelling, until they feel safe with indoor dining and staying indoors, it will be challenging.”

Mary Ann Bautista is among those who haven’t been called back to their union jobs. Before the pandemic, she spent 14 years as a buffet food server at The Strat. 

As a single mother with several teenagers still living in the house, she said it has been difficult to make ends meet on unemployment benefits alone. Bautista has leaned on the Culinary Academy’s food assistance program for help over the past year. She longs for the day when she can resume her job. 

“This is not our fault. We didn’t do this,” she said. “This is a pandemic. We didn’t ask for this. We work hard.”

DETR Director Elisa Cafferata said when she arrived at the agency in August, there were nonstop calls from constituents needing help and a major backlog. To this day, she said the applications haven’t tapered off as much as she expected.

“We've definitely made a lot of progress. There's still a lot of hard work to do,” she said. “The thing I'm most focused on is how do we sort of pivot and help people start thinking about going back to work.” 

But the employment figures also highlight a troubling trend, said Brian Peterson, director of public policy and economic analysis with the Anderson Economic Group. In Nevada, nearly 74,000 people dropped out of the labor force completely between February and December of last year. These are people who have reported not actively looking for a job in the past four weeks.

“The big question is, what are those 74,000 people doing?” he said. “Have they become discouraged? Are they planning on waiting out the pandemic? My guess is that at least some of those 74,000 folks want to have a job, but they just haven't been able to find anything.”

There is a certain optimism within the resort industry about Las Vegas’s ability to once again come roaring back as a tourist destination. 

Las Vegas has already, essentially, been at the capacity allowed under the state’s emergency directives for some of the recent three- and four-day weekends, Vassiliadis said. World of Concrete is slated to be the first major convention to return to Las Vegas in June, and Cirque du Soleil is hoping to bring back its aquatic acrobatics show “O” at the Bellagio by July.

Tourism officials say the old notion of Las Vegas — a great escape in the desert where fun and freedom trump judgment — could be the very reason it will bounce back more quickly than other destinations. Sure, it might currently lack some of the traditional offerings. Nightclubs, for instance, aren’t jam-packed with partygoers on the dance floor. But the sunshine, warm weather, dining and gambling options might be enough to lure travel-hungry guests, even if other entertainment options are somewhat limited.

“People want to see family and then they want to get away, and when they want to get away, Vegas tops that list,” said Steve Hill, president and CEO of the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority.

Of course, this all boils down to people’s willingness to travel. Vaccine deployment will play a crucial role boosting that confidence level, state leaders say. But the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention hasn’t exactly given would-be tourists its blessing. The nation’s top health authority recently issued guidance discouraging travel among fully vaccinated people — a point that has received pushback from some within the travel and health industries. 

Plus, it’s unclear whether COVID-19 cases will remain at their current plateau or see a springtime surge as a result of the increasing spread of variants and loosening restrictions. In Las Vegas, tourism outpaced projections when casinos initially reopened last summer but then took a nosedive toward the end of the year as coronavirus cases multiplied again.

“I'm pretty optimistic about the direction we're headed in now,” Hill said. “But we didn't anticipate the extreme nature of the spikes that we saw around Thanksgiving and Christmas and how much damage that did to the economy here.”

Another variable: the return of business meetings and conventions, which boost the economy during off-peak travel seasons. There’s even hope that some conventions might return to Las Vegas in the second half of 2021 and then return during their normally scheduled time in early 2022.

The Las Vegas they return to, however, will likely look a little different. Resorts have more eagerly embraced new technologies, such as remote check-in and keyless hotel room entry. In the case of MGM Resorts, a partnership with Clorox as the resorts’ “official guest disinfectant and hand sanitizer brand” is now a selling point.

Jim Murren, former CEO of MGM Resorts, envisions Las Vegas marketing itself as the “preeminent health safety tourist destination in America” — even beyond what resorts are already doing.

“When you do that ... we rip conferences and conventions away from Atlanta and Miami and New York and Chicago and Dallas and LA,” Murren said. “If they have a choice of listening to Lady Gaga in LA versus Vegas, and we can market that it’s safer to do it here, they’re going to come here.”

There is, however, less optimism about the future beyond the Las Vegas Strip. It’s not that state officials don’t believe Nevada’s economic situation will improve across the state — they do — but they worry about the small businesses and workers getting left behind.

Lawmakers have taken steps to help, including authorizing $100 million for the Pandemic Emergency Technical Support (PETS) grant. They hope $10,000 or $20,000 cash infusions backed by federal dollars will keep thousands of small businesses alive.

“It's always easier to keep what you've got … You're so much better off doing that and trying to spur new startups,” said Bob Potts, deputy director with the Governor’s Office of Economic Development. “The recovery side of things — that has to be paramount.”

Sisolak is hopeful he will be able to work with the Legislature to fix the longstanding problems with the state’s unemployment system. A computer modernization project that could cost up to $50 million is on tap for the next few years pending availability of funding, and a “strike force” led by former Assembly Speaker Barbara Buckley made extensive recommendations for how DETR could be better prepared to scale up staffing if another crisis hits as suddenly as COVID. 

“Prepare for war in times of peace,” Tyler-Garner advised. “I couldn't underscore more the need to ensure that we're always planning to strengthen our systems, because we never know what the demand might be in the future.”

But there’s also an acknowledgement among many in the state that Nevada’s problems run deeper, and that recovery cannot begin and end with Nevada’s tourism industry, or even with fixing the state’s unemployment system. The goal, they believe, has to be a long-term fundamental shift in thinking about the state’s economy. Murren, who became the CEO of MGM Resorts during the Great Recession, recalled seeing the “economic, social, mental, physical devastation of our community” because of Nevada’s reliance on one industry for a significant chunk of its tax revenue.

“Here we are again, and what did we learn? It seems very little,” Murren said. “Whenever things are doing well here in our state, there seems to be this expectation that they'll always be that way and that we should just not rock the boat.”

Tyler-Garner said before the pandemic, she had been working on how DETR would respond to problems that lurked just below the surface of the state’s illustrious unemployment rate: Wage stagnation. Jobs without adequate benefits. Dramatically higher unemployment in subgroups such as the formerly incarcerated.

“Some of the families that were already working two or three low wage jobs ... I shudder to think of what is happening to those families right now,” she said. “Those segments of our community were invisible.”

For Buckley, who runs Legal Aid of Southern Nevada as her day job and has seen the agency deal with a record of nearly 163,000 clients in 2020 in a region of a little more than 2 million, the pandemic has highlighted the need to invest further in the safety net and — deeper than that — Nevada schools.

“I think that key leadership throughout our state do recognize our shortcomings and are working on plans to change our over reliance on gaming and hospitality,” she said. “But as many have pointed out, it means more of an investment is needed in education and in our schools, to allow us to compete.”

That’s, in part, why the governor’s private-sector COVID-19 task force, which has in the last year helped the state secure personal protective equipment, ramp up testing, build out a contact tracing app and bridge the digital divide for students, plans to focus next on workforce recovery. Nevada was also one of nine states awarded up to $100,000 in grant funding through the National Governors Association to help states prepare for a post-COVID economy.

But Murren, who chairs the task force, believes economic diversification will only happen in Nevada if and when the state chooses to make a significant investment into the quality of life of its residents, including supporting education, health and safety, the elderly and homeless individuals. And he believes it will take the support of everyday Nevadans, too.

“What makes me incredibly angry is that so many people move to our state to avail themselves to our lifestyle, to our weather, to our natural beauty, to our entertainment, to what is great about Nevada, but they don’t contribute to it,” Murren said. “The will of the people seems to be that we don’t want taxes, or little taxes, or we don’t want to raise any revenue, any form of proper investment. Then, you get what you get in Carson City as well.”

Nevada’s budget was already slim to begin with, and it became even slimmer when lawmakers cut nearly a billion dollars from the state’s budget over the summer. That included hundreds of millions of dollars in spending on health care and education. Though Nevada received nearly $25 billion in federal aid in the last year, state officials felt like they were constantly worrying about how to pay for needed services.

“Nevada doesn’t have a huge safety net to provide on the best of days, and that’s the reality of it,” said White, the governor’s chief of staff. “That’s the hard reality of it.”

That reality is visible in places like the Culinary Academy’s parking lot. Its food distribution operation is called Helping Hand, and Scott, the organization’s CEO, said it’s not time to let go yet. The Culinary Academy anticipates providing food assistance to needy families through the end of the year in some form.

Scott knows community members remain appreciative.

It’s not uncommon, he said, to find notes of gratitude waiting in the vehicles’ trunks.

Part III coming Sunday, March 21.

Strike force concludes work, says backlog of PUA unemployment claims can be cleared in two weeks

A strike force tasked with helping the Nevada Department of Employment, Training and Rehabilitation (DETR) with a crushing backlog of unemployment claims says it believes a backlog of regular claims that are more than eight weeks old can be processed within two months, and a backlog in a gig worker program can be cleared in less than two weeks.

Officials working on the strike force initiative — which involved outside experts and people with private sector experience trying to solve problems with the unemployment system — briefed reporters Thursday morning on a 38-page final report they are issuing as their nearly six months of work comes to a close.

They also offered up long-elusive statistics on the unemployment claims backlog: there were 217,197 claims to the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) program for the self-employed pending on Aug. 1, around the time the strike force stepped in, and there were 16,874 remaining as of Monday. None of those remaining claims have documents uploaded and therefore are considered possibly fraudulent, officials said.

"While challenges remain, I am proud of the work of the Strike Force, DETR leadership and employees, and [welfare] employees to tackle these issues head-on, and am confident that DETR’s current leadership can carry forward the Strike Force’s progress," Gov. Steve Sisolak said in a statement.

Within the regular unemployment system, there were 26,470 unresolved claims that were thought to be eligible for payment as of Aug. 1, and there were none in that pending category as of Monday.

One of the strike force’s main initiatives has been enlisting welfare division workers to put in an extra 20 hours a week on overtime to help work through backlogged claims. Those workers were responsible for resolving 88,064 PUA claims, according to the report.

The welfare workers will continue working on DETR issues as the strike force steps back. Strike force leader Barbara Buckley, who is head of the Legal Aid Center of Southern Nevada and is the former top-ranking member of the Assembly, noted the strike force has been around months longer than initially planned.

“We were planning on sticking around, studying the system within 60 days, 90 days, but honestly one of the biggest problems facing the system was a lack of staff power, and being so far behind,” she said. “So our team decided to stick around … and not just have this study be put on a report, but actually be implemented.”

Continuing issues with backlog

While the initiative has resolved thousands of claims from earlier in the pandemic, large numbers of claims continue to accumulate. PUA is grappling with a deluge of applications for benefits, including nearly 112,000 new applications that came in just last week — a record weekly claims figure that accounts for more than a quarter of all PUA applications submitted nationwide and is thought to consist in great part of phony claims.

Buckley described unemployment systems as “besieged” by fraudulent actors using stolen personal information obtained off the “dark web” to try to file claims. 

“For the first time, the fraud that is being seen in unemployment offices is not a claimant fudging, trying to get an extra week of benefits,” Buckley said, “but criminals who have your name, address, Social Security number and date of birth, and who are filing claims in real people's names.”

She said DETR is developing ways to cope, including by implementing new technology that legitimate claimants can use to prove their identity, and with the strike force cross-referencing the list of claimants to other databases to determine authenticity. But the problem goes beyond just the agency.

“All state systems will have to get ready. Private sector systems will have to get ready, because of the massive level of ID fraud that is going around our nation,” Buckley said. “So while much still needs to be done to keep one step ahead of these criminal rings, DETR is no longer stalled by these criminal networks.”

The strike force estimates that there are 183,199 PUA claims that have been pending for more than eight weeks, and only 7,709 in that group that include identity documents and may potentially be eligible for payment. Strike force officials recommend a mass denial of PUA claims that still have no documentation as of Feb. 7.

While the state has received nearly 1.8 million initial claims for benefits since the pandemic began — and denied hundreds of thousands of them already for lack of identification and other issues — it has paid out at least once week of benefits to more than half a million people as of Dec. 31. The number of people paid is approximately one-third of the state’s total labor force.

Staff more than triples

The strike force’s report says that DETR headed into the economic crisis with a combination of inexperienced leadership, vacancies and understaffing.

“You can't run an operation in crisis, without steady accomplished leadership at the helm,” Buckley said. “Since that time, every leadership position has been filled.”

When the pandemic hit, the Employment Security Division had 181 employees, Buckley said. By August, there were 362 employees, plus contract staff through Alorica who fielded PUA inquiries. 

Now, there are 766 staffers working on claims. The strike force recommended ways to ensure the state is ready for any future surges, including cross-training welfare eligibility staff in unemployment assistance, keeping manuals updated and recording training sessions.

Another recent challenge has been staffing up to handle appeals from people who are contesting their denial of benefits — something that ramps up after large-scale denials. 

Buckley said another 10 staffers are expected to be added next week to help with those quasi-judicial proceedings. About 900 requests for appeals are waiting to be scheduled in the regular unemployment program, and about 900 are waiting to be scheduled in the PUA program.

The state is getting through 100 to 200 appeals per week, Elisa Cafferata said.

Computer system and reporting problems

Asked about how DETR would deal with continual problems of clogged phone lines, Buckley said that if communication improves through press releases and other channels, it will reduce the need to call. 

The strike force is also recommending an automated chatbot feature that can help field frequently asked questions without the need for a phone call.

But sometimes larger forces dictate the call volume — Cafferata said that when Congress changes the unemployment programs and add weeks of eligibility or bonus payments, the phones light up with callers wondering when the money kicks in.

“That sort of overwhelms the call center for a while,” she said. “So if the program features will stabilize and we can just be paying people's benefits, that's going to help.”

It doesn’t appear, however, that DETR will be able to fulfill an early strike force promise of creating an online dashboard that shows how many claims are in what stage of processing. Buckley said such tallies have to be done by hand because the system counts how many issues a claim has rather than how many claims exist — a data format that is largely indecipherable to the general public.

“It just proved impossible to do that regularly,” she said.

Buckley said her recommendation would be that such updates come periodically rather than weekly. Cafferata said DETR may be able to report other figures to show the agency’s progress, such as which week of the backlog they are processing. 

Claimant experience

The strike force is recommending a greater focus on the claimant experience. Buckley acknowledged the system’s forms and instructions can be confusing, PUA and the regular unemployment computer system are entirely separate and do not interface, and there are not enough updates provided to claimants.

Some of the proposed solutions are a “business process review” to examine each step of the process, and to have an actual claimant look at the forms the agency uses to provide feedback on how clear they are. 

The strike force also wants to create a liaison position with a staffer who will advocate for and communicate with claimants. The report highlights the benefits of communicating with the head of a Facebook group that thousands of PUA claimants had joined to seek advice from each other.

While adding an entirely new position takes time because of the state’s hiring process, Buckley said DETR has identified someone who is willing to take on those tasks initially, and the position will be a point of discussion with the governor’s office. 

Implementing benefit extensions

Congress in December approved extensions for several unemployment programs, but they were signed into law after programs had already lapsed. The timing left a gap, and many programs remain partially implemented a month after federal approval.

Cafferata said one significant issue is trying to ensure people who have been unemployed long-term can take advantage of all possible weeks afforded by the extensions in various programs. 

DETR is trying to balance an 11-week extension in Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation (PEUC), a program that provides benefits to people who have exhausted an initial round of regular unemployment benefits, with a separate state extended benefits program that serves people who have exhausted two prior tranches of benefits including PEUC.

“We're still working with the Department of Labor so we can implement the Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation … without cutting into or eliminating some of these state extended benefit weeks that claimants can get,” Cafferata said. “The worst part, of course, is the people who are in those lines are the ones who are exhausting their benefits and really need us to answer that question. But we can't answer it by ourselves.”

The state also needs to reprogram its computer system to comply with new, more stringent restrictions that will apply to first-time PUA applicants. More documentation is now required of claimants in the gig worker program, which has been particularly susceptible to fraud. 

The state has been accepting new applications to PUA while the programming is in progress, but still needs to take additional steps of verifying them.

Buckley said she’s learned how arcane and complicated it can be to run a program like unemployment that is so entwined with the federal government. New memos often come from the federal government that change operations, for example.

“You can't do things unless the Department of Labor says you can do them. And Congress and the president, by waiting — it makes it extremely difficult,” Buckley said. 

The strike force is recommending that any future changes Congress makes — such as a lengthy extension of PUA that is under discussion — be done well in advance to allow time for programming and to obtain clear direction from the federal government. 

“if you're going to do it, do it now. Allow that computer programming to be done now, so that any problems and reprogramming don't cause delay and benefits. Allow the guidance to come out,” she said. “This kind of, ‘Oh, let's extend it for a month’ process is really hurting states, and it's really hurting claimants, and it can be avoided.”

This story was updated at 7:40 p.m. on Jan. 28, 2021 to add more detail from press briefing.

DETR Strike Force Final Report by Michelle Rindels on Scribd

DETR: Claimants likely to see gap in unemployment benefits as state implements stimulus bill

Photo of Barbara Buckley

Although the federal government is poised to extend unemployment programs that are supporting hundreds of thousands of Nevadans but were set to expire in four days, state officials expect there will be a gap in benefits as computer systems adjust to the changes.

Barbara Buckley, head of a strike force that is assisting the Nevada Department of Employment Training and Rehabilitation (DETR) work through the deluge of claims it has received during the pandemic, said she’s pleased that people depending on programs such as Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) will have the prospect of benefits in the new year. 

But she said Congress’ procrastination has not allowed enough time for state officials all across the country to understand the bill, reprogram computer systems and continue payments uninterrupted. That could have “really, really devastating” effects for claimants who have already burned through their savings and may go without income for several weeks while the system catches up with the law and can dole out back payments.

“Waiting to the last minute is really horrible,” Buckley said in an interview with The Nevada Independent on Monday. “It's a horrible way to govern, and to ensure that there's no gaps for people who desperately need the money.”

A 5,593-page bill in Congress, introduced on Monday, will add 11 weeks of eligibility to the PUA program that is set to expire after this week and is serving about 80,000 Nevada claimants. With Nevada participants already eligible for up to 46 weeks, the extension could allow them to claim up to 55 weeks.

It will also add 11 weeks to the Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation (PEUC) program, which is serving nearly 100,000 Nevadans who have exhausted their regular state unemployment benefits. Claimants can make an initial application to PUA or PEUC for any weeks ending up to March 14, and if they have not exhausted their entitlement of PUA or PEUC, can continue making weekly claims up to April 5.

The bill also restores Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation payments that are added on to base benefits, although they will be $300 a week rather than the $600 a week provided earlier this year. Nevada PUA claimants, who can draw up to $469 a week in benefits, would receive up to $769 a week with the add-on.

Another provision that may relieve stress for Nevada claimants is that it allows states to waive the obligation that PUA claimants reimburse the government if they are overpaid, if it was not the claimant’s fault and if forcing them to repay would go against “equity and good conscience.” Buckley and DETR Administrator Elisa Cafferata said that errors are common in applications and can generate a request to already-destitute claimants that they pay back sometimes tens of thousands of dollars.

But Buckley said that the bill still falls short of Nevada’s needs and “is a little disappointing” because it extends programs for 11 weeks rather than the 16 originally discussed in Congress. Some 280,000 people filed a weekly claim for benefits in the most recent week on record — a number that is up from the week earlier in a sign that the state’s tourism-fueled economy is stagnant.

“Nevada is not going to turn around overnight,” Buckley said. “Perhaps they'll extend it. But again, certainty and only having to do the programming once would have been great, and then it doesn't create more backlogs.”

Lost Wages Assistance

DETR said that because of computer setbacks, it is still in the process of paying out the fifth week of Lost Wages Assistance — a program that pays out $300 bonuses to certain claimants who were unemployed for weeks starting in August and are receiving at least $100 a week in base benefits.

The process was supposed to take about five to 10 days, but is now still going about a month after beginning. The delay is even standing in the way of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) making a decision on whether it will give Nevada more money to pay a sixth week of Lost Wages.

Cafferata said the system was quickly able to pay out PUA claimants, whose minimum benefit is $181 a week. But the process has taken much longer for the pool of claimants in the regular, state-paid unemployment program, where claimants can receive amounts below the $100 threshold, requiring DETR verify who is and isn’t eligible for the benefit.

“Up until week five, it was taking about five to 10 days to get through all the batches in UI. And then we had to do a computer programming fix that was totally unrelated to Lost Wages, but was impacting those runs,” Cafferata said. “So we had to stop doing week five, run the computer programming fix, and then restart week five ... So it just is much slower than we would like.”

She said the system is also buckling under a workload that is about 10 times more than it was designed to handle. This weekend, the state processed about 50,000 Lost Wages payments, and is hoping to wrap up this week.

“This is really a very constrained computer program that can only make one change at a time,” she said. “And the team is doing a phenomenal job with a system that is operating far beyond its capacity that it was built for.”

While DETR has requested more money so it can pay eligible claimants a sixth installment of the benefit, FEMA has not committed to doing so.

“They just will not commit to making the adjustment until we finished paying our week five,” she said. “I would say don't count on week six … The grant is not large enough to cover it.” 

Appeals and court case

After a judge found DETR to be in contempt of a court order issued this summer to restore the flow of benefits for people who had seen payments stop, DETR has pivoted to ensuring they are in compliance by a Dec. 24 deadline.

Washoe County Judge Barry Breslow fined the state $1,000 and ordered immediate action on about 9,000 claims for which payments were stopped.

“The priority up until and through this week will be making sure we come into compliance with a court order,” Cafferata said. “We still have one small group of claimants to review and make sure we're in compliance.”

DETR must restart payments that had stopped unless claimants have not filed weekly claims for benefits, are making earnings in excess of the allowable limits, or if there is clear and convincing evidence of fraud. A status check in the case is set for Dec. 31.

Resuming the payments should help address many of the cases stuck in the backlog of appeals, Cafferata said.

Cafferata also said there are about 400 or 500 cases that have been scheduled for an appeal or are awaiting scheduling. Beyond that, there are additional cases that are thought to need review from staff but that could be settled outside of an appeals hearing setting.

The same group of staff that is trying to ensure DETR pays out people under the court order is the group that will then work on addressing claims that need a non-hearing solution.

“Once we are able to put five or 10 more people on that, we should be able to get through them very quickly,” Cafferata said.

Hearings are quasi-judicial proceedings that are supposed to be independent of the day-to-day operations and staffing of DETR, to make the process fair. While appeals in the regular unemployment program involve hearing from the claimant and their employer — often on questions of whether the person was laid off or quit — the PUA program for the self employed is more centered on whether the person qualifies under the existing parameters of the program. 

“A lot of it is this question of is your unemployment COVID related?” Cafferata said. “And it seems like it should be very clear, and it's not.”

To work through the appeals backlog, DETR has reached out to the Public Utilities Commission and UNLV’s Boyd School of Law to try enlisting more people with expertise in applying the law and federal guidance to the facts of a claimant’s case.

“There's definitely a willingness to help us out, which is great, we appreciate that,” Cafferata said.

DETR officials say that a force of 200 welfare workers who are working overtime for DETR to address pending claims have been able to work through 5,000 to 6,000 cases a week that have yet to be approved or denied.

Unemployment taxes

Nevada recently depleted its unemployment trust fund and is now borrowing money from the federal government to keep regular, state-funded benefits rolling out for claimants.

Under normal circumstances, employers whose laid off employees tap into unemployment are docked and must pay a higher tax rate into the trust fund based on the usage rate, called the “experience rating.”

But a bill passed by the Legislature in a special session over the summer holds businesses harmless for relying on the fund, and the rate of the overall employer tax rate will remain the same in 2021 as it has been in 2020, pending approval of regulations by the Legislative Commission later this month. 

“It really wasn't anyone's fault that this economic crisis hit,” said Cafferata. “There won't be an immediate change for businesses, which is good news for them, because they're all struggling. And so it's important to sort of keep things stable for them.”

DETR has also taken action to ease the burden on nonprofits and government employers, called “reimbursable employers,” who are on the hook to pay the full cost of benefits paid out to their former employees if they are laid off. That’s different than the standard arrangement where employers pay a low tax rate in an insurance-style arrangement that has the state covering the majority of benefits in the event of a layoff.

“They've seen much higher bills than they normally would, because of the unemployment rates and also the fraudulent claims,” Cafferata said. “So we are forgiving 50 people of those charges, just because again, it was no fault of their own.” 

The future

Buckley said she is preparing a report on the strike force’s activities and plans to step back from the volunteer role she has held since August when that is complete. One of the recommendations that will be included: investing in the computer infrastructure needed so the system can better handle large volumes of claims.

“We can't be tied to a system that can't serve the people,” she said.

She said she’ll also be looking to see what Congress might be doing beyond the proposed extensions to carry Nevada to recovery.

“So we got a little Band-Aid. But in the end, there are a large number of people who were laid off in March who still don't have a realistic chance of being called back,” she said. “So I think we gratefully accept … these extra weeks that we're receiving, but it is not a bridge to the other side yet. It's a couple large boulders in the creek. It's not a bridge.” 

Utility regulators may be next to help DETR; state now borrowing from feds to pay unemployment

State officials say they’re considering bringing on law students and staff from the Public Utilities Commission to help conduct appeal hearings when people contest a denial of unemployment benefits.

Leaders of the Nevada Department of Employment, Training and Rehabilitation (DETR) provided updates on their operations Friday to the Legislature’s Interim Finance Committee, which authorized the expenditure of $29 million in federal grants to support DETR operations. But officials said it has been difficult to keep up because 1.5 million initial claims for unemployment have been filed since mid-March — the equivalent of every single person in the Nevada’s civilian workforce applying for benefits.

“We've had literally tens of thousands of applications coming in on a continuing basis since the strike force started,” said DETR Administrator Elisa Cafferata, referring to a group of outside experts appointed to help DETR sort out chronic issues starting in August. “So it's very difficult to make headway in the overall backlog because of the number of applications that are continuing to inundate us.”

Applications to the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) program for gig workers and the self-employed have followed a particularly erratic trend. While economists predicted that 80,000 to 200,000 people in Nevada might be eligible for PUA, the program has seen close to 800,000 applications.

Last week, there were nearly 46,000 initial claims to PUA. The week prior, there were 61,000, and the week before that, there were only about 8,000.

“Applications in the PUA program continue to be highly variable,” DETR officials said in a press release on Friday. “Future research may help us to understand this volatility; however, DETR’s current focus is resolving claims for eligible Nevadans.”

DETR has issued mass denials in the PUA program, disqualifying at least 437,000 claims to date, largely over inability to verify the claimant’s identity. Claimants have the right to appeal if they believe they were wrongly denied, although the quasi-judicial hearings that make up appeals can take considerable time and only began last month.

DETR didn’t immediately answer an inquiry Friday evening about how many appeals are pending. However, in early November, DETR strike force leader Barbara Buckley said there were about 800 pending appeals and thousands of appeals requests were able to be resolved outside of a formal appeal hearing.

DETR may be seeking help from staff from the Public Utilities Commission because the agency regularly conducts quasi-judicial proceedings involving the utility companies it regulates.

During the meeting, Democratic Assemblywoman Daniele Monroe-Moreno asked Cafferata to bring clarity to the state of backlogged unemployment claims. She noted lawmakers are getting pleas for help through the phone and email “daily, hourly.”

Cafferata said that in 2019, DETR had about 18,000 people who were drawing unemployment benefits on the average week. Last week, there were 280,754 people on the rolls, filing “continued claims” each week — a number that is higher than the week earlier in a sign that the employment picture is stagnating.

“‘So we are carrying a caseload and providing benefits to almost 300,000 Nevadans every week,” Cafferata said. “Of course, those folks are not calling you because they're getting their benefits and the help that they need. So you're hearing from the folks who are in the backlog.”

Strike force backlog

Cafferata estimated that since Gov. Steve Sisolak tasked the strike force to help work through the backlog of unemployment claims in August, the expanded workforce has been able to get through about 90 percent of the backlog in PUA and about 90 percent in the standard unemployment program. 

“We've made a huge dent,” she said. “We think we've got some tools in place to have a better handle on what's coming in and resolve it more quickly.”

She said DETR plans to continue into the new year drawing on the help of the approximately 200 welfare workers who are doing overtime hours to help resolve unemployment claims. Some of the $29 million approved by lawmakers on the panel was to support the expanded workforce, she said.

Cafferata noted that the Department of Labor offers flexibility through the end of the year to allow non-state employees to help with administration, so the agency has contracted with the staffing firm Maximus to answer phones and work on claims.

“And then we have ongoing hiring at DETR to bring in our own staff, because over the long term, we'll have to stop borrowing staff from other agencies,” she said. “Unless there's a provision in whatever relief bill that Congress passes, we will need to either replace those folks with state staff or it will slow down some of our processing.”


Lawmakers also asked what the state was doing to combat fraud in the unemployment programs.

Cafferata said DETR plans to contract with an entity that can do a large-scale analysis on the back end and see if there are patterns to fraudulent claims. She also noted there are national efforts to examine interstate fraud, and that banks — which sometimes have more information than the state — are helping to stop fraudulent payments.

“A lot of what you see in terms of the numbers of cases that are not being paid — they represent cases ... of folks who really are not legitimate Nevada claimants,” Cafferata said. “And so when people say there's thousands of people you're not paying, that's probably a good thing, because we know they're not valid applications.”

She acknowledged that many claimants have received letters demanding they pay back sometimes thousands of dollars to DETR that was wrongly paid out to them. The letters can be exasperating for claimants who are already in dire financial straits.

“Most of those in your constituents’ case will be if they got paid in the wrong program and need to go to one of the other programs to get paid,” she said.

Depleted trust fund

DETR announced Thursday that it had formally started borrowing from the federal government to keep regular state benefits flowing after depleting a state unemployment trust fund that had a balance of nearly $2 billion heading into the pandemic. That balance was drawn down in nine months.

“I think it’s a great credit to the folks at DETR that that fund has been able to stay ahead of the game up until this point,” Cafferata said. 

She said that Congress passed a law in 1944 that allows states to borrow to keep paying regular benefits, and that 22 other states have already started borrowing through what she called a “totally standard procedure.”

Nevada has informed the federal government that it may borrow about $100 million in December, $82 million in January and $67 million in February. The amount being paid out by the state has been declining as many claimants exhaust their base benefits and move to extension programs that are fully federally funded.

“The other thing to remember for the trust fund is that the employers continue to pay into it,” Cafferata said. “So it's a situation where we have a continual balance of what's coming in and what's going out.”

Democratic Assemblywoman Maggie Carlton said that when Nevada borrowed from the federal government to pay benefits in the Great Recession, the state got “a little inventive” to craft a repayment plan.

“Once we know where we actually stand, we can start planning on how to get clear,” she said. “But it's important that this money gets to families so that they can survive.”

Overpayment notices bring new heartburn to broke claimants who say DETR still owes them

Las Vegas resident Diana Santeliz has been struggling so much as she waits for a resolution on her stalled unemployment claim that she has been unable to pay for a car she needs to continue as an Uber driver. As of Thursday, she had just $6.50 in her checking account. 

So it was a shock when, a few days earlier, she received two letters from the Nevada Department of Employment, Training and Rehabilitation (DETR). One said she was overpaid $8,483 and that it needed to be paid back within 11 days. The other said she owed the state another $10,200. 

“Oh my God, I started crying,” said Santeliz, 47. “And then I was sick in the bathroom, my stomach upside down.”

Santeliz said she knows there must be a mistake because she only received a few weeks of benefits before her claim stalled indefinitely, and the amount DETR said she owes is far more than she was ever paid. But it’s still a major stressor for a mother of two who is trying to keep a roof over her head, and she’s far from the only Nevadan receiving such news.

DETR Director Elisa Cafferata said in an interview posted Friday on KLAS-TV that the two most common situations for overpayment notices include when someone received money through the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) program and it was discovered later that they hadn’t exhausted their eligibility under the regular unemployment program. 

The other common scenario is when a claimant’s statement about their income doesn’t match underlying documentation, sometimes through an honest mistake, and DETR has paid them more than they are entitled.

Barbara Buckley, who leads a strike force tasked with reducing the backlog of unresolved claims, said there’s due process for correcting those issues.

“People shouldn't get too stressed out about them. I know it's stressful to get a notice, but look, if they're out of work, they’re out of work, right?” she said. “The important thing is, if they think it's legally wrong, to file their appeal, to have an independent referee look at it. And at that point, later on, they can look at a repayment plan, they can look to when they get a job.”

The appeals process Buckley described is still gearing up for the PUA program, though. Cafferata told KLAS the agency has held “a few hundred” appeals hearings and has about 700 or 800 ready to be scheduled.

“We're just working through that first couple hundred to sort of get the process, all the pieces in place,” she said. “And then once we get it set up so that it's working smoothly, we should be able to get through them pretty quickly, but we're just not quite there yet.”

Frustrations have boiled over so much that attorney Mark Thierman, who represents claimants whose payments have been delayed, denied or stopped, filed a motion Thursday asking that DETR be declared in contempt of court. He points to DETR’s statement that a group of 13,068 PUA claimants who had received at least one payment in the past were not paid the week of Aug. 15 for reasons other than making too much money or not filing a claim — but DETR has not fully explained how many in that group were ever eventually paid or why payments were stopped. 

Thierman said he continues to receive hundreds of communications each week from claimants whose payments have stopped for no obvious reason. He also criticized the overpayment notices, and a message that pops up on an online portal for claimants trying to appeal them, that tells users they “do not have the privilege to perform this action.”

“Clearly, DETR continues to follow its inhumane and unlawful edict of denying benefits

to eligible Nevada citizens for any and all reasons, whether legal or not, as opposed to providing

struggling eligible Nevada claimants a means in which they can promptly receive lifesaving

benefits mandated by Congress under the CARES Act,” the lawsuit said.

He is asking a Washoe County judge to fine the defendants — who include DETR officials — up to $1,000, publicly admonish them, and put them behind bars for up to three months if they disobey for a third time a court order to pay certain groups of claimants. Thierman’s motion also says progress is not enough, even though Buckley told KLAS that DETR and her strike force think they’re about two weeks away from working through a list of unresolved PUA claims.

“DETR also argues that they have made ‘significant efforts toward compliance,’” the suit said. “These are not legally valid reasons to disobey a court order.”

For Santeliz, the challenge is trying to find a way to keep money coming in without help from unemployment. The car that was her livelihood was repossessed over the summer, and her initial solution of renting a car for $360 a week left her underwater.

But this week, her mother-in-law is expected to loan her the $500 she needs for a down payment on a car. She’ll have to pay 26 percent interest on the loan because of the damage the repossession did to her credit, but she hopes it at least relieves the anxiety she feels every four weeks when rent comes due.

“If I have to leave that [Uber app] on for 15 hours a day I will,” she said. “I have to be able to have an option to make money and not be broke.”

Unemployment statistics

Initial claims for regular unemployment benefits dropped to the lowest they've been since March last week, and PUA claims have leveled out from their spike. 

Still, 17,988 initial claims were filed this week, and there have been nearly 1.4 million such claims during the pandemic. There are about 1.5 million people in the Nevada labor force.

The trend of more people exhausting regular unemployment allotments — which vary in length —  and moving to the Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation (PEUC) extension program continues. There were 94,009 PEUC continued claims last week, and 96,872 continued claims in the regular, base program. 

Across the four programs, 279,894 people claimed unemployment in Nevada last week. That's down 18,693 from prior week — a larger-than-typical drop.

The state’s unemployment trust fund balance is about $89 million, or enough to pay out three weeks of state benefits at current levels. Nevada expects to borrow from the federal government to continue payments when the trust fund is exhausted.

DETR administered about $111 million in benefits last week, nearly a third from the temporary Lost Wages Assistance federal program that adds a $300 bonus payment for a limited number of weeks.

Cafferata told KLAS that the state is still finishing up paying eligible claimants the fourth week of the benefit, and expects to start paying the fifth week of the benefit next week. Payments roll out in phases, starting with PUA claimants and moving to regular unemployment claims, with the payouts expected to wrap up in two weeks.

Nevada’s unemployment rate in October was 12 percent, which is down from 12.5 percent the month prior.

But DETR economists warned that record-setting levels of COVID-19 cases flaring up in Nevada, and the possibility that state leaders could unveil further restrictions to help control the spread of the virus, could send more shockwaves through the battered economy.

“Although the labor market continues to improve, Nevada remains one of the states most impacted by the COVID pandemic,” the agency wrote in a monthly report released this week. “A new wave of cases continues to grow, and further policy restrictions may limit speed of our recovery over the next few months.”

Indy Q&A: What has unemployment strike force accomplished as its three-month timeframe ends?

It’s been three months since Gov. Steve Sisolak called on a “strike force” to address a stubborn backlog in Nevada’s unemployment system over the course of 60-90 days.

Although claimants continue to report major delays in getting their benefits, and the first batch of hundreds of long-awaited Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) appeal hearings are just now getting underway, leaders working on the issue say they’ve made significant progress in disqualifying large groups of claims that appear fraudulent and are bringing in a team of welfare eligibility workers to resolve legitimate claims and get Nevadans paid.

“We are down to several thousand from the original 200,000 plus,” strike force director Barbara Buckley said Monday about the backlog in PUA cases. 

With the second-worst unemployment rate in the country in September, the state has received more than 1.3 million initial claims for unemployment benefits during the pandemic alone, out of a workforce that numbers only 1.5 million. In recent weeks, the PUA program has been inundated with a sharp increase in claims — the vast majority of which Buckley and Nevada Department of Employment, Training and Rehabilitation Director Elisa Cafferata believe to be fraudulent.

“We are really close on the PUA backlog that the task force came in to address,” Cafferata said, “and we're getting much better at being able to much more quickly sort of send out notices to people that we can't verify their identification.”

The two sat down for a Zoom interview with The Nevada Independent this week to share updates on the progress addressing the issues they faced when they first took their jobs three months ago. But they also weighed in on a looming crisis — that federally funded programs such as PUA hit a hard stop at the end of the calendar year, affecting some 200,000 Nevadans who are currently filing claims to the programs.

“I worry for these individuals in an economy like ours, where we're not back yet,” Buckley said. “And so I'm hopeful that Congress will do something to help these folks. They're the backbone of our workforce, and they need assistance.”

Below are highlights of the interview, which has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

INDY: The governor appointed the task force to work for two to three months. We’ve hit the three-month mark now. How long will the strike force be working?

BUCKLEY: It's our plan to wrap up our work when the PUA backlog is completely resolved, and the PUA call center is stable, and the [regular unemployment] backlog is mostly through, and there's kind of a plan on how it will be finally resolved. And we'll then issue our report on what we found, what was done and our recommendations for the future. And we're already halfway through with that report. So we're compiling it and finalizing it now.

INDY: Do you know what is driving the surge of more than 100,000 PUA claims we saw in the last two weeks alone?

CAFFERATA: They're highly suspicious. We're doing an analysis on them more quickly to sort of put the ones that don't have valid identification aside so that we can get to the folks that are eligible. Because the really tragic thing about these fraudulent applications is that there are some hundreds, maybe even 1,000 or so, folks that their business hung on for a long time, and then just got to the point where it can’t keep going. And they really do need their application processed. 

And these fraud cases continue to gum up the works. But I do think we've gained experience — we're working on more and more tools to immediately put those aside and get to the people that really need to help.

INDY: When claims are denied, applicants can appeal the determination. What’s the status of the long-awaited ability to have a hearing appealing a PUA determination?

CAFFERATA: We actually started hearings last week. And as we have been doing since the strike force came on, we do things in pretty small test cases to make sure we can work out the challenges as much as possible. Doesn't always work out, but that's always our goal. 

So we have I believe 100-something appeals scheduled for this week ... and they'll just keep going.

Even though people can appeal any decision or sort of at any point in the process, we have had a team that goes in and looks at all the appeals to see if it's a legit decision that was made that they're appealing, in which case, you really need to go through the appeals process. Or in thousands of cases, what really happens is people just need an answer. And so we've had a team looking at them, and they've been resolving thousands of cases.

At one point, we had over 12,000 appeal requests, and we've reviewed them and resolved them so that I feel like we're kind of staying on top of those numbers.

BUCKLEY: The estimate on the pace is about 260 to 280 a week that the staff will begin after this initial batch of the hundred is done. So we're going to begin to see massive scheduling and resolution shortly.

Right now, there's 787 PUA appeals.

The department’s also interviewing this week, plans to hire one more referee, and maybe some part-time attorneys who might come on for a few months, and then leave, just to help with the backlog. 

INDY: Are the 200 welfare eligibility workers still on the job, each working 20 hours of overtime a week for DETR?

BUCKLEY: Yes, they're still amazing and still working. And we're going to keep them until the backlog’s resolved and there's something they can attack.

One of their first tasks was to get through 26,000 PUA cases for resolution and they finished that last week. So we are now redeploying them. 

CAFFERATA: Because yet again, we have had a quarter change. And as you know, that requires us to go back and by law, we have to reevaluate everyone's case to see if they have W-2 earnings. 

We think there are about 3,000 cases that might need to have someone look at it for the quarter change review.

INDY: How is the rollout going for the federal Lost Wages Assistance program, which provides $300-per-week add-on payments to qualifying claimants for as many as six weeks? (The state is stewarding a finite amount of federal money to pay people who were on the unemployment rolls starting in early August.)

CAFFERATA: The priority these last few weeks is getting the Lost Wages payments made. So we started week four, and it will take 10 days because we have to do it in batches …

At least in Nevada, we’re a little different from other states. Because our unemployment is so high, we have continued to have applicants come in who are eligible and so even though we asked for the full amount for the full six weeks, then we've still had thousands of applications come in. 

I feel pretty good about week five. We also have submitted a request because you can amend your ask if you get more people coming in. 

It's been a very difficult situation, and we're committed to paying as many people, as many weeks as possible. But we just have to be really careful we don't overspend what we've been given. 

INDY: How are you feeling about how the election affects the outlook of the unemployment system?

CAFFERATA: I've read a few things that say they're back to talking about some relief package, which is so up in the air with so many moving parts. I just don't even know what to think other than I keep repeating my hope, which is that if they do a relief, that it is just extending something we're already doing, and not add another program to the mix. 

Because literally, our system is maxed out. We are still catching up on system changes to implement all the things that have happened. And so we're sort of stable, but we can only go very steadily to making these implementations. And if we have to add something else, it just moves something else to the back of the line. 

INDY: Are there any new updates on the effort to prosecute people perpetrating fraud on the unemployment system?

BUCKLEY: We really don't have any new updates on that. We are glad to see those prosecutions. We want to see more ...

Unemployment was a sleepy little program. And now it's very clear that the personal data of Americans has been stolen and is in the hands of some really bad folks. And they then are now using that to target different programs, whether it's a Small Business Administration, or unemployment offices around the country.

The department now is well aware of all these challenges and has things in place where in the beginning, the department did not, right, because it had never been the subject of professional fraud. This isn't someone trying to claim one or two weeks they may not deserve … it's professionally organized, sometimes with lots of brains behind the outfit, sometimes not. But this material has definitely been bought and sold now, many times over.

INDY: How is your focus changing?

BUCKLEY: The other thing that it's clear that we need is more stimulus dollars from DC. We need it for state government, we need it for local government. Last thing we need to do is to lay off 1,000 teachers, 1,000 folks that work in Medicaid, welfare, the safety net state programs. 

We need to stop the bleeding, we need stimulus for state and local governments and then extended unemployment relief until the economy picks back up. Another stimulus for the general working people would be nice, too. But there's a lot of help we need until we're stable.

Our first judicial race evaluations are live

Lady Justice perched atop the Nevada Supreme Court building

We have updated our judicial race section with analysis on three races — the first of dozens that will go live this week — for the contests for Supreme Court, Court of Appeals and Eighth Judicial District Court Dept. 19

Before you vote, I strongly encourage you to read the summaries of findings of our Boyd Law School research team and our excellent legal panel (view all their biographies and photos here).

For those who may have missed it, we unveiled in May the first iteration of what we believe is the most comprehensive look at judicial candidates in state history. For many years, I, along with most voters, have been frustrated by the lack of information provided about judges and candidates for the bench. Even if you believe, as I do, that judges should not run for office, this is the universe we live in, and we at The Indy want to make that universe better.

So, as I have written, we sent detailed questionnaires to all of the judicial candidates on the ballot. The questions were assembled by a team of some of the best lawyers in Clark County, from former Assembly Speaker Barbara Buckley to veteran Don Campbell (who also happens to be my lawyer) to former Supreme Court Justice Michael Cherry to public defender David Westbrook and many others.

We were gratified by the 60 percent return rate by judges and candidates — and by the appreciation almost all of them showed for what we are doing. A few dozen did not return the questionnaires. That fact is and will be indicated in our race write-ups. 

We only have one goal here: To give voters the information they need to make good decisions at the polls. The Indy does not endorse candidates, and we will not assign ratings.

Finally, for a small news team, there are limitations on any project such as this one. One of them is that we couldn’t evaluate every judicial race in the state — but that is our ultimate goal. This is new ground being tilled, and we will strive year after year to produce better crops.

Finally, I want you to know that this project would not have been possible not only without the help of the volunteer lawyers and law students who saw the need for what we are doing — and a few Indyites who deserve special mention.

Our chief technical officer, CJ Keeney, worked long hours to get the section ready and update it with what you see today; I have never been more grateful to have him on board.

He was assisted by the consistently superb design skills of Peter Vogt and our all-around jill-of-all-trades Stasy Shipman, who helped do what she does every day: Check our work, proofread every word and make suggestions for improvements.

And the entire package was, as usual, overseen by my indispensable No. 2, Elizabeth Thompson, who kept everyone, including a wayward editor, on track.

Thank you to all of them.

As always, we want feedback from our readers, especially ones with unique knowledge of judges or candidates. What is missing from our write-ups? What did a candidate say on a questionnaire that isn’t true? What red flags do you see?

We want your help, need your help. If you see anything, please let me know. I’m at

Number of Nevadans on unemployment rolls subsiding, but slowly; steady clip of new applications

Mike Powers, an independent musician from Las Vegas, sought to apply for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) on the first day he could — May 16.

Four and a half months later, his online PUA portal tells him his status is “in progress” with “no issues.” He’s reached representatives with a PUA call center run by private vendor Alorica twice, and the second time, in late August, the representative asked him to affirm he hadn’t left the country during the pandemic and said she would put a note on his claim.  

To date, he said he still hasn’t received a dime.

“Sadly, many don't even consider gig workers anything other than an abstract concept. So, it's like we don't exist or matter,” he wrote on Twitter on Friday. “Meanwhile, the economy rolls onward as though people can pull rent and bills out of thin air.”

Powers is one of tens of thousands of people thought to be caught in the Nevada Department of Employment, Training and Rehabilitation backlog. Barbara Buckley, head of a strike force trying to address the hangups, said there were about 80,000 in the backlog as of Aug. 1, and more than 18,000 had been resolved as of last week.

She and DETR Administrator Elisa Cafferata said they hope claimants will start to see more movement with the transfer of the Alorica call center to state workers effective Monday, and the addition of 200 welfare workers who volunteered to work overtime on evenings and weekends to work through the claims; they are wrapping up their second week on the job.

Still, the agency continues to see high levels of initial applications for benefits rolling in, and more than 300,000 claims from people saying they were unemployed last week.

Below are the latest details released Friday by DETR.

Unemployment statistics

Initial claims for unemployment continued to remain high, with 18,723 of them filed last week. While claims in the regular program have reached a pandemic low of 7,525 in a week, claims in the PUA program exceeded 11,000 last week and have not, as might be expected, reached a saturation point.

In an interview last week, Cafferata said that the persistently high number of initial claims rolling in each week is caused by a combination of factors. DETR gets WARN Act notifications — which are notices that a business plans large-scale layoffs or furloughs — and has seen an uptick in those, likely as businesses that tried to stave off staff reductions for as long as possible failed to see the economic rebound they wanted.

But she said that she thinks a lot of the PUA initial claims are fraudulent because the eligibility criteria is not as stringent.

“Certainly, there's always a certain percentage that will [be eligible] and it's just finding the tools to get to those folks and get them the benefits that they're eligible for,” she said. “But I do think there's more fraud in PUA.”

So far during the pandemic, there have been nearly 1.15 million initial claims filed through both programs in a state with a workforce of about 1.49 million. Nearly half a million of those have been through the PUA program, although DETR economists estimated the universe of Nevadans eligible for PUA might range from about 80,000 to 250,000. 

Continued claims are trending downward relatively quickly in the main unemployment program and to a slower extent in PUA, but that’s counterbalanced by growth in the programs people move to when they’ve exhausted those first-tier allotments.

The Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation program grew by nearly 6,000 last week, and the extended benefits program that is available to those who exhaust PEUC grew by nearly 400.

Across all four programs, there were about 6,000 fewer continued claims to unemployment programs in Nevada last week. Still, there were 327,934 applications claiming a person was jobless last week.

People who qualify for the maximum number of weeks in all programs could get up to 59 weeks of benefits under current rules.

The insured unemployment rate — which reflects the rate of people who are eligible for regular unemployment benefits who are filing claims for them each week — fell by a full percentage point week-over-week to 13.7 percent. That’s a low not seen since mid-April, and far from the pandemic peak of 26.8 percent.

The most recent national insured unemployment figure was 7.8 percent.

The number, however, only reflects people who are using their base allotment of regular unemployment benefits. That means the rate could improve, but some people are merely exhausting a first round of benefits and moving to another benefits program rather than returning to a job. It also does not reflect people drawing PUA benefits.

Nevada’s unemployment trust fund stood at $215 million last week, or enough for four weeks of benefits. The account balance got a boost when the federal government reimbursed the state for a week of payouts because Nevada waived a waiting period for sending out benefits early on in the pandemic.

The state has yet to borrow from the government to continue meeting its obligations, although 19 other states have already done so and the state intends to when the account runs dry.

Counting both state-paid and federally funded benefits, DETR paid out $95 million last week, down from about $100 million a week earlier.

So far this year, the state has ushered out $6.8 billion in benefits, a figure that dwarfs Nevada’s annual general fund budget, which is more than $4 billion.