Backlog in unemployment benefits better, officials say

08/09/2014 12:00 AM

08/09/2014 2:23 PM

State officials say last year’s severe backlog in unemployment benefits, which kept thousands of jobless North Carolinians waiting for months for decisions on their eligibility, has improved dramatically.

Last August, the Observer reported nearly 13,000 North Carolinians were stuck in a backlog waiting for either an initial decision or the results of an appeal.

The U.S. Department of Labor requires 60 percent of appeals cases be heard within 30 days. Last June, just 0.7 percent of appeals cases met that standard.

This June, 64.4 percent of these cases were heard within the required time period, state officials say.

“The process was broken,” said Dale Folwell, assistant secretary for the state’s Division of Employment Security. “It is unjust the amount of time people were having to wait.”

Folwell said the average wait for an appeal hearing has shrunk from 18 weeks to 18 days. He attributed the improvement to an increased focus on accuracy and more streamlined communication.

But some employment law attorneys say the wait is still too long.

“Yeah, it’s been decreased, but it hasn’t been decreased enough to really help people,” said Vicki Rowan, an employment law attorney in Charlotte.

She said her clients often wait as long as six weeks to get a hearing. And the process to get an initial decision lasts even longer – sometimes up to eight weeks.

Adjudication, the step from when an unemployed individual files for benefits to when he or she first gets a decision, is the new issue, said Kasey Underwood, an attorney at Legal Services of Southern Piedmont, a nonprofit law firm.

“If it takes eight to 10 weeks to make an initial decision on whether or not someone is going to get their benefits, that’s too long,” she said.

At the end of July, 5,008 cases, 46 percent, were outside the federal 21-day standard for the adjudication process, according to the division.

Folwell said the hold-up is because the division is working on getting cases right the first time. Last year, the division had to chase down benefits it had distributed to people whom they later found ineligible.

“We don’t want to just look at the case, make a determination and move on,” he said. “We want to do things correctly, not quickly.”

This differs from last year, he said, when cases were getting “flushed through” just to be appealed later. And because more time is being spent on adjudication, Folwell said, there have been fewer appeals, which has allowed the division to work through last year’s backlog.

The Division of Employment Security has 58 adjudicators on staff to handle claims from filing to an initial decision. In a typical week, between 3,000 and 4,000 cases are handled and between 4,000 and 5,000 new cases come in, Folwell said.

“Our backlog (for initial decisions) is never going to be much below 6,000 cases,” Folwell said.

He said the division hopes to have its adjudication caseload down to 7,200 cases by Labor Day. At the end of July, 10,988 cases awaited an initial decision.

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