WRAL Investigates

'No excuses moment' for new NC unemployment chief trying to address mountain of claims

Posted June 26, 2020 6:10 p.m. EDT
Updated September 15, 2020 5:54 p.m. EDT

— Former state House member Pryor Gibson, who was put in charge of the state Division of Employment Security a month ago, said he is now overseeing what he calls the most aggressive hiring campaign in state government history to try and tackle the unprecedented tidal wave of unemployment claims.

"This is a no excuses moment," Gibson told WRAL Investigates in his first lengthy one-on-one interview since taking the job.

Nearly 1.1 million people have filed for unemployment in North Carolina since mid-March, when stay-at-home orders closed huge swaths of the state economy to limit the spread of coronavirus.

More than $4.5 billion in unemployment benefits has been paid to 746,600 of those people. Another 227,000 were deemed ineligible, and the remaining 120,000 are still awaiting resolution of either their claims for state benefits or the federal benefits that Congress approved to boost the economy during the pandemic.

The state went from an average of 3,200 new claims a week last year to more than 20,000 a day in the early weeks of the pandemic, overwhelming the system and frustrating filers who said DES' website frequently crashed and they had to spend hours on the phone to get through to a person to get answers to their questions.

"We’re genuinely sorry, but we are committed to fixing their problems, and I sample them every morning and every night, and some of them are pretty tough," Gibson said, adding that he’s pushing for improvement in a complicated process.

When he replaced longtime DES employee Lockhart Taylor, he committed a team to handling the oldest claims. At the end of May, more than 69,000 claims from the first two months of stay-at-home orders, were unresolved, including almost 29,000 that were filed between March 15 and April 18. That backlog is now down to about 16,000, with all but 1,000 filed between April 19 and May 16.

"We’re still not where we need to be," Gibson said, noting that he wants to resolve those 1,000 oldest cases by Monday.

An adviser to former Gov. Bev Perdue, he had been directing a rural development program for Gov. Roy Cooper's administration when Cooper asked him to fix DES' problems.

"I think the reason I was brought on is because folks in state government know I’m kind of an operations guy," Gibson said.

The agency could have responded better when claims started rolling in, he said. YouTube videos and public service announcements could have helped educate first-time filers and manage their expectations in a crisis, he said.

"The tsunami, when it came ashore, it was all elbows and ankles for everybody just to try and service what was coming online and on the phone," he said.

To better handle the crush, DES instituted a chat bot to answer online questions, new call back options, a claimant ID recovery system and a status tool to better inform filers.

"That one product, in the first two weeks, had over 3 million hits to it," he said of the status tool.

In addition to clearing out the claims backlog, Gibson said the next challenge will be identifying fraud.

"It’s not fair to people who need this money so badly for somebody to be gaming the system," he said.

Also, filers need to be prepared for when the benefits run out. The extra $600 dollars a week in unemployment from the federal CARES Act is set to expire at the end of July, and Congress is still debating whether to extend those benefits.

Gibson’s advice to new filers is to take time with the application. Small mistakes can lead to big setbacks in getting benefits. Also, don’t try to call on Monday, as it’s usually the busiest day for the state’s call centers.

"You are not a number to us," he said of the state's jobless. "What your story is is important to us, and if we haven’t gotten to you yet, we will."

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