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July 31, 2014

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Politics:

Senate to take yet another crack at passing jobless aid extension

Nevada’s workforce agency expects challenges but says it’s up for the task

Jeff Frischmann will wait and see if the newest version of legislation to extend emergency unemployment benefits passes the Senate this week. He knows that if it does, and ultimately becomes law, it will mean working out the bugs at his job.

Frischmann, chief of unemployment insurance operations at Nevada Department of Employment, Training and Rehabilitation, is confident, though, as he anticipates the flood of people returning to the system to file claims.

"We would stand ready and do it. ... We’ll get through it, just like we have in the past."

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid will bring the most promising version yet of legislation to extend benefit funding, which ran dry in December, to the Senate floor this week. Its chances of passing are good, but the long-term prognosis for the bill is dimmer.

House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, last week called the measure “simply unworkable.”

Ten senators led by Jack Reed, D-R.I., and Dean Heller, R-Nev., cobbled together the latest bill expressly to draw a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate. Five Republican senators have pledged to vote for it, and positive signs from more conservative Democrats indicate the bill will get just the 60 votes necessary to keep it alive.

But Boehner is balking because of concerns raised by a group representing state workforce agencies that trying to restore benefits dating to December would cause significant processing problems.

In Nevada, Frischmann recalled that a previous time Congress had difficulty passing an unemployment extension, the rush to file claims caused major delays — even with extended hours and accelerated processing schedules.

“I would estimate probably about 35,000 to 40,000 claimants (would) come back into the system,” Frischmann said. “Once you open up that floodgate, that’s a whole lot of people to take care of on a Monday morning.”

Before funding for unemployment benefits lapsed in December, the Nevada agency was processing about 30,000 emergency benefits claims and 20,000 regular claims in a given week.

Just six months ago, Nevada workforce officials spent $35 million to upgrade what was a 15-year old unemployment claims processing system. Frischmann says the system has automated, for the most part, how people switch from tier to tier of their unemployment eligibility, so he doesn’t expect many hiccups in that part of processing. But he does expect delays that might come with running so many claims through the system.

For months, the agency tried to head off that problem by encouraging jobless workers to continue to file claims through March 1.

Since then, it has been telling would-be emergency benefit claimants to stop filing — with no information available as to when they might restart.

That could create some problems for processing claims once things come back online — not because of the system, but because of the confusion it would cause for people who will have to prove they were playing by the rules even when they weren’t actively filing for benefits, Frischmann said.

“Each week, a UI claimant must log, or track, or keep a list of where they looked for work and what their work search looked like,” he said. “Part of the challenge that these poor folks are going to hit is that when they didn’t have the benefits, there were no requirements. But now we’re going to set retroactive requirements … that (are) going to make the process really difficult when you think about going back months.”

Another potential problem cited by Boehner last week is that state claims processing systems don’t contain enough data to satisfy certain requirements in the bill, such as the provision denying benefits to millionaires.

For example: Nevada’s workforce agency keeps data on raw wages, but it doesn’t keep tax returns – making it all but impossible to determine who would count as a “millionaire” under that exclusion.

“We’re not the IRS,” Frischmann said.

For Nevadans, being discouraged from filing claims comes as an alarm that perhaps the missed checks won’t come after all, despite the best intentions of the state delegation.

Jobless workers in Nevada, which in January posted an 8.7 percent unemployment rate, would remain eligible for the maximum 73 weeks of benefits had federal funding for the emergency tiers been approved. The state covers the first 26 weeks; everything beyond that is considered emergency benefits, and the federal government foots the bill.

But those who were in the longest-term tiers would be coming up to the end of their eligibility. With that in mind, senators are preparing to pass their bill out of the Senate this week despite the cold shoulder from the House speaker.

After that, the fate of the bill may rest largely on Hail Mary mechanics in the House.

Before last week’s recess, Democratic lawmakers in the House filed a discharge petition to bring up unemployment legislation. So far, 191 — including Nevada Reps. Steven Horsford and Dina Titus — have signed on. But 218 signatures are necessary to force Boehner to schedule the matter for a vote, and there has thus far been no interest from Republicans.

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