Las Vegas Sun

November 27, 2014

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Jobless claims stress state: Good news?

Ironically, flood of calls means department is hiring, paying overtime

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If you’re among the 100,000-plus out-of-work Nevadans and you want to talk to someone who can send you an unemployment check, expect to spend a lot of time dialing and then even more on hold.

The average wait was 37 minutes last week; the maximum was about two hours, officials said.

The only other option is to go online — if you have access to a computer.

Things have gotten to this point because the state’s Employment, Training and Rehabilitation Department has taken two blows to the gut in recent months: the highest unemployment rate, 6.4 percent, in 15 years, and an emergency program that has operators trying to answer as many as 43,000 calls.

But there is a bright side. Need work? The state needs you — to answer the unemployment hotline!

Cindy Jones, deputy director of the state agency, says bad times are good for her agency, and she’s doubling the phone staff, from 40 to about 90. You’ll earn $15 an hour to start, with the likelihood of overtime.

This hiring situation is what Jones calls “countercyclical.” Her federally funded agency, she says, was the one laying off people back when things were booming a few years ago. Now, she says, people are “welcome to apply.”

“It’s ironic,” Jones allows.

Then she reels off the dizzying numbers that show where we are right now:

• 117,000 people have filed for unemployment benefits in Nevada this year to date, compared with 164,000 in all of 2007;

• The federal government announced a program to give up to 13 weeks of additional help to anyone whose benefits have expired at any time since May 1, 2007, causing the state to send out 43,000 letters to potential candidates;

• That brought in 6,100 extra phone calls last week, making for 16,000 calls, compared with 7,600 calls a year ago at this time;

• 32,000 people got unemployment checks in the mail last week, the average amount of which was $282.

The statistics keep coming: 380 people can be put on hold at the same time.

So, if you are caller 381, you don’t even get Muzak. Instead, you suffer a busy signal. About 20 percent of the people answering the lines speak Spanish, Jones says; at least one in four people in Clark County is Hispanic.

The state had to open Saturdays starting last weekend and began using overtime to pick up more of the calls. Oh, and 500 of those 43,000 letters have been returned so far, addressee unknown.

Jones also had a word of advice: Verizon ads notwithstanding, use a land line. There’s nothing worse than having your call dropped after being on hold 92 minutes.

She also tried to cast the current situation in a sunnier glow. Before 2001, Jones notes, “you used to wait in bricks-and-mortar offices — now you can sit in your own homes.”

Plus, she says, the federal government’s help for Nevada as it slides into joblessness will pump more money into the economy.

Those 6,100 callers last week, for example, could receive up to $1.5 million in extended benefits.

Maybe they can buy themselves a computer and deal with the state online next time.

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