storefront with "store closing" signs AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh

“I’ve probably been able to get through [to DES] seven times in two and a half months.”

Unemployed Arizonans breathed a sigh of relief when the Coronavirus Aid, Response, and Economic Security (CARES) Act was passed in late March. 

The legislation included an additional 13 weeks of unemployment benefits for those who had already exhausted their normal 26 weeks, plus an additional $600 weekly boost to help ride out the pandemic.

But what Arizonans didn’t realize was how long it would take for those benefits to become available. 

Arizona’s Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA), which offered benefits to workers not normally covered under regular unemployment, wasn’t launched until May 15, long after other states debuted their systems. 

And those waiting for Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation (PEUC) weren’t able to apply until June 7, meaning many people had gone months without any income. 

An Eight-Hour Job

Arizonans seeking PEUC soon found what felt like a new full-time job on their hands––trying to get in touch with the state’s Department of Economic Security (DES). 

“It takes at least a week of nonstop calling people to get through to someone,” John S., whose benefits ran out in the fall of last year, told The Copper Courier. He asked not to use his full name for fear of retribution from DES. 

Starcia Harris, a former city bus driver, told The Copper Courier “it’s like an eight-hour job trying to get through.”

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Facebook groups, devoted to sharing advice on how to navigate the unemployment system, show hundreds of people in similar situations backing up these claims. 

“I’ve probably been able to get through seven times in two and a half months,” John said. 

And when they finally did get through, it was rare to actually receive useful information. 

“I got a lot of, when I talked to reps, they know what we know,” Harris said. “Whatever’s on the website, that’s what the reps know and that’s it.”

John experienced the same frustration. 

“Agents are basically saying, ‘They haven’t told us anything, so I really don’t know. Until they tell us what to do, I can’t do anything,’” he said. 

Who’s in Charge? 

DES has had a tumultuous history when it comes to leadership. 

Former director Tim Jeffries was fired in 2016 due to multiple scandals, including mass firings and a party in which he allegedly purchased alcohol for employees. After his firing, the Department of Public Safety discovered a weapons cache including 50 guns and 80,000 rounds of ammunition in the agency’s basement. 

Henry Darwin was then appointed interim director and replaced by former Department of Housing Director Michael Trailor after six months. Trailer resigned two years later. 

At the beginning of the pandemic, Dr. Cara Christ was serving as the interim director. If her name sounds familiar, that’s because she’s also the head of the Arizona Department of Health Services, the agency tasked with running the state’s pandemic response. 

After the public raised concerns over the state having the same person run both departments, especially in a time of crisis, Gov. Doug Ducey appointed former Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System (AHCCCS) Director Tom Betlach as the interim director toward the end of March. 

Then about two months later, on May 28, Ducey named Michael Wisehart as Betlach’s replacement. 

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John S. wondered whether this frequent change of leadership has led to disjointed communication between officials, the agency’s representatives, and the public. 

“There’s no consistency or continuity, which probably explains why people at the bottom kept saying we’re not getting any information,” he said. 

Throughout the pandemic, Ducey has downplayed the severity of the problems people have encountered with the system. 

“They are experiencing busy signals. The earlier you can call in the morning, the better,” the governor said at a briefing in May. 

However, getting through to DES has been much more complicated than just calling early. Harris said that even if someone started calling at 6:45 a.m., before the office opened at 7 a.m., the queue of callers would often already be full. Once the queue was full, the agency’s phone system would stop placing people on hold and simply tell them to call back later. 

Members of the unemployment Facebook groups continue to work together to strategize the best numbers and times to call.

A Struggle to Get Moving

Arizona was late to the game in launching its PUA system, causing eligible workers, including self-employed people, to have to wait longer to begin filing than in other states. 

DES announced in late April it had contracted a third-party company to help the agency develop this system, which launched May 15.

The agency did not allow people to file for PEUC for almost another month. 

When asked why it took so long to allow people to file, DES spokesman Brett Bezio said the agency’s “Unemployment Insurance team worked diligently to implement the extension of benefits, which required additional complex programming to the existing unemployment insurance system.” He did not answer whether the same third party they worked with for PUA helped with PEUC. 

The DES system has also been bogged down by people stealing others’ identities and filing fraudulent claims, sometimes resulting in people who didn’t apply for benefits receiving checks. 

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“These fraudsters are using phishing scams, data breaches and other tactics to collect information of individuals across the country, and using that information to file for UI benefits in several states,” Bezio told The Copper Courier. “From February 2020 to date, there have been 251 confirmed cases of UI fraud related to identity theft.”

As of Tuesday, the fraudulent claims were causing delays in payments being received. A statement on the agency’s website read:

“To continue our efforts to combat fraud and ensure program integrity, there will be a delay in issuing payments for individuals who filed claims Sunday within the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance portal. Due to the volume of claims submitted, we are constantly evaluating our processes and systems to ensure we can pay benefits as quickly as possible to those who are eligible. We understand that this additional processing may create additional hardship for you and your family. We thank you for your patience and partnership in safeguarding unemployment assistance for Arizonans.”

Finally, Some Help

Both John and Harris said they were finally able to start receiving payments in mid-June. 

Harris received her backpay all the way back to April 4, while John said he only received one week of pay. He said he was told DES agents must manually enter his previous claims, meaning it could take a while for him to see that chunk of money. 

Now that money is coming in, John and Harris said they feel a bit better. But they are still frustrated by how difficult and exhausting the entire experience has been. 

John said he feels the process has been a “systemic issue of horrible incompetence” with “a real lack of accountability. ” 

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And, as Harris put it, “Arizona really needs to step it up because this has been a mess.” 

Bezio said a total of about 30,000 people exhausted unemployment insurance benefits and may be eligible for PEUC.

As of June 10, approximately 3,300 individuals had applied for PEUC. The agency has not included PEUC in its weekly updates of how much money has been paid out. 

As of June 22, more than 700,000 Arizonans had filed for regular unemployment while nearly 600,000 had filed for PUA.

This story originally appeared on Copper Courier.