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Judge orders Nevada DETR to start paying more PUA claimants, stops short of granting all requests

Michelle Rindels

The Nevada Independent

The Department of Employment, Training and Rehabilitation office in Carson City on June 4, 2020.
Courtesy photo
EDITOR'S NOTE: This story was first published July 20 by The Nevada Independent and is republished here with permission. For more Nevada news, including wall-to-wall coronavirus coverage and a constantly updating live blog, visit The Nevada Independent.

RENO, Nev. — A Washoe County judge has ordered the state to start paying unemployment benefits to workers such as Uber drivers who have lost significant business but not entirely ceased operations, and to keep payments flowing unless the applicant stops filing claims, makes too much money or appears to be committing fraud.

The decision issued Monday by Judge Barry Breslow comes after court-appointed Special Master Jason Guinasso prepared a report of more than 300 pages identifying bottlenecks and possible solutions in paying Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) claims for gig workers and the self-employed.

More than 200,000 PUA claims have not been paid; some are flagged for pending issues including questions about eligibility, but state officials say many are likely fraudulent.

Guinasso’s report, filed Friday, recommended a corps of volunteers to help respond to claimants and quickly denying claims suspected of fraud so legitimate applicants can get due process through an appeal.

But Mark Thierman, attorney for the plaintiffs, said those solutions would take too long to implement. He wanted the Nevada Department of Employment, Training and Rehabilitation (DETR) to pay claimants who have cleared a preliminary eligibility hurdle, even if it means that some fraudulent claims would be paid in the process.

Waiting for a just-implemented PUA appeals process to play out could mean claimants do not receive money until the fall and by then are “starved out of existence,” Thierman said.

At the conclusion of the more than three-hour hearing, Breslow said that he thought DETR had acted in a “somewhat” arbitrary and capricious manner in making judgments about workers such as Uber drivers.

The rules applied to them would reward those who refused to drive passengers altogether and hurt those who were picking up jobs taking people on essential errands as a way to eke out a subsistence living.

He also said DETR should not stop payments from flowing to claimants after they had already started unless claimants weren’t filing weekly claims, started making too much money to be eligible, or there was clear and convincing evidence of fraud.

He wants payments to those groups of claimants to be made by next Tuesday, July 28.

Breslow initially spoke of ordering $600 weekly Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation payments to claimants when it was clear they should be receiving benefits, but it was not clear whether the money should come from regular state-paid unemployment or PUA funds. But he ultimately decided not to order that.

However, Breslow called for another court hearing at 10 a.m. on July 30, saying he wants to see progress from DETR on one common issue claimants tens of thousands of claimants have — being stuck in limbo because it’s undetermined which program should be paying out their benefits.

As of Friday, there have been 325,732 claims filed to the PUA program in Nevada, and 114,124 have been paid. DETR has said it expects a significant amount of those filings are fraudulent, although Guinasso said he was unable to disclose in a public hearing some of the particulars of the suspected fraud that is under investigation.

The Nevada Independent is a 501(c)3 nonprofit news organization. The following people or entities mentioned in this article are financial supporters: Jason Guinasso – $2,000.00; and Mark Thierman – $180.00.