PHOENIX - Tens of thousands of Arizonans on unemployment are still struggling with the state's new ID verification requirement, a step that allows those on unemployment to be paid, and the root of the issue may have just been uncovered.
The internal reviews FOX 10 obtained show the Department of Economic Security (DES) has routinely failed at meeting federal benchmarks, possibly the cause for issues those on unemployment are now facing.
A claimant, waiting for unemployment benefits for months, said if the agency had been audited, none of the issues she’s facing likely would have happened.
"It’s really, really frustrating. How do these things slip through? It doesn’t make sense," said Valley resident, Kim Smith.
She's one of many fighting with DES over her unemployment. This summer, a federal report says tens of thousands of Arizonans waited more than a month for benefits.
"That’s a long time to wait when you're trying to put food on the table and pay your rent," said Arizona Rep. Mitzi Epstein.
In June, Epstein called for an audit of DES after FOX 10 revealed the last one was 15 years ago.
"If there had been a prior audit, any number of processing efficiencies could have been found and improved and when we improve inefficiencies, we save money," Epstein said.
Now, a joint legislative committee has agreed to vote on a special performance audit of the agency.
"Every day, we wait. It breaks my heart for all these people waiting for their unemployment insurance checks. And it’s something they’ve earned," Epstein said.
In June, DES said it conducts regular internal reviews of unemployment. On Monday, Dec. 7, it released the information to FOX 10 after a public records request made six months ago.
The information reveals the agency stopped conducting internal reviews in March, once the pandemic hit.
However in 2019, before the major increase of unemployment claims, internal reviews reveal the agency had major issues with accuracy.
In 11 out of 12 months, DES failed to meet the federal benchmarks.
A statement from DES reads in part, “There have been some issues along the way, which we have been working diligently to resolve and improve our program for the future. We know there is always more that can be done to better serve Arizonans and we will continue working hard in the months ahead to provide the best possible services for Arizonans.”
The legislative committee was supposed to meet and vote on a special audit of DES the week of Dec. 7, but it was pushed back because of COVID-19 closures at the capitol.
Read DES's statement in full below:
Audits routinely take place within the Department and we use them as opportunities to find issues and fix them. The Department is committed to transparency and continuous improvement. There’s no doubt the pandemic has had a real impact on the department — we went from 200,000 initial claims for unemployment in 2019 to more than 5.3 million this year. We’ve had to scale up our entire program, including our computer systems, our staffing levels, our call centers and more, to respond to this increased demand, and we’ve been doing it with COVID-19 safety protocols in place for our staff. As you know, there have been some issues along the way, which we have been working diligently to resolve and improve our program for the future. We know there is always more that can be done to better serve Arizonans and we will continue working hard in the months ahead to provide the best possible services for Arizonans.
The internal reports provided following your public records request demonstrate the attention the program pays to the quality of the services it provides to claimants. These reports identify trends among case accuracy, opportunities for improvement, and specific topics upon which we can continue to train our staff.
Arizona has issued more than $12.4 billion in unemployment aid to over 2 million claimants, and received over 5.3 million initial claims, thus far in 2020. That’s in comparison to just under $200 million, and approximately 200,000 initial claims in 2019.
With the unprecedented surge in unemployment that has impacted the entire nation brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, a significant strain was also placed on our staff and our systems, and we responded with aggressive hiring, rapid improvement to our processes and determination as we worked quickly to get UI benefits to those who qualified. We have hired over 1,500 employees, thus far, to join the UI team in order to meet the demand in the communities. We also partnered with a private call center company to assist in answering questions from claimants and applicants.
During the early months of the pandemic, we were challenged with creating a brand new Pandemic Unemployment Assistance system from scratch within weeks of the release of federal guidance. In addition, Arizona was the first in the nation to distribute the additional $300 Lost Wages Assistance supplement to claimants. Our priority has and will continue to be providing critical assistance to eligible Arizonans.
Arizona is working to be a national model to other states and sharing best practices for the methods we have used to ramp up our capacity and distribute payments to eligible claimants. We will continue to collaborate with our state and federal partners to share our story in order to improve service outcomes for our citizens.
For more reports on the Department of Economic Security, visit this link.