WRAL Investigates

Problems at NC unemployment agency nothing new

Posted April 2, 2020 5:44 p.m. EDT
Updated April 2, 2020 7:30 p.m. EDT

— A tsunami of claims for unemployment benefits tied to business shutdowns amid the COVID-19 pandemic has swamped the state Division of Employment Security in recent weeks, causing frustration among people seeking help and promises for improvements by state officials.

But problems with North Carolina's unemployment system are nothing new.

WRAL Investigates documented problems during the recession in 2009 when the state had computer failures processing claims. Three years later, WRAL found that the agency had repeatedly failed quality checks by the U.S. Department of Labor and scored among the worst in the U.S. in several areas.

Two months ago, for example, when looking at how many first-time unemployment payments were made within 21 days, Tennessee, South Carolina and Virginia had checks in the mail more than 90 percent of the time, while North Carolina's rate was 74 percent.

When the virus disrupted North Carolina's economy last month, the state's system couldn't handle the record number of claims flooding in, and online and phone systems were crippled.

Lockhart Taylor, who oversees the DES, said Thursday that the more than 355,000 claims filed since mid-March amount to almost 1,000 an hour, 24 hours a day, seven days a week over the past two weeks.

Even worse, people can't go to local unemployment offices for help because they're closed in a time of "social distancing."

"I can't get on the unemployment. I've faxed them. I've emailed them. I've been on hold for six-and-a-half hours," said Annette Holcomb, a hairstylist from Sanford who lost her job when hair salons statewide were ordered closed to limit the spread of the coronavirus.

"Our hours got cut, and then we had nothing. We got laid off," Holcomb said.

Dozens of others who can't get through to DES reached out to WRAL to agree:

"I can’t get any assistance, food running low, and bills still coming. Please help!" one emailer said.

"NC DES website kicks me off the site … Phone calls won’t go through. I’ve been out of work for over a week, and I’m getting very concerned," wrote another.

"It may sound good on TV that many will get their unemployment and the stimulus ... but that’s far from what’s happening," said a third.

"We know that a lot of people have had problems accessing our system or getting through on phones. This is not acceptable," Taylor said. "We hear your frustration. ... We are working around the clock to be there."

So far, the state has paid $8.2 million in virus-related claims, and that figure will "grow exponentially" in the coming days, he said.

DES is in the process of hiring 350 employees to help, including call center and computer staff. Agency officials also have said that server capacity has been beefed up and an outside call center has ben contracted with to help with the call volume.

Normally, the DES' two call centers are open 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. The contracted call center extended hours to 5 p.m., but Taylor said that workers stay until the 200 to 300 callers still in the queue at 5 p.m. are helped. He said that often takes until 7 p.m.

The centers will soon stay open until 8 p.m. on weeknights, he said. The centers aren't open on weekends, but a DES spokesman said some staff focuses on callbacks and responding to emails during that time.

Just the chance to get processed can't come soon enough for those struggling.

"It's a nightmare. Pure hell, I must say, because you're worried about where the next meal's coming from," Holcomb said. "You're worried about your normal daily stuff, and of course, there's no toilet paper to get. Then, you're worried about your water bill because that's going up, you're light bill's going up, and no money's coming in."

From those who manage to connect and get through the process, it takes another two weeks to see a check.

It's not yet clear how the federal boost for unemployment systems around the country will be implemented, but part of the plan is to increase eligibility for the self-employed and independent contractors who wouldn't ordinarily qualify. DES has said it expects guidance from the federal government on these issues by the end of the week.

The federal Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation would also add 13 weeks of unemployment eligibility, helping those who exhaust their normal 12 weeks of benefits in North Carolina. The state is awaiting information from the U.S. Department of Labor on implementing that program as well.