Navigating unemployment during the pandemic has been complicated, if not impossible, for hundreds of thousands of Arizonans who've been waiting for months to be paid.
Some have issues with their claim but can't get through overwhelmed phone lines at the Arizona Department of Economic Security (DES). Others were approved and receiving benefits but had payments abruptly stopped when DES discovered that millions of dollars in fraudulent claims were being filed and distributed.
The discovery, made in May, somehow also caused legitimate unemployment claims to stop too. A DES spokesman says the agency is investigating 1 million potentially fraudulent claims. ABC15 has received hundreds of emails from frustrated Arizonans on the verge of losing everything while the investigation takes place and receiving misinformation if they happen to get through to a call center representative.
Then on Wednesday, ABC15 found that by the end of the week, the agency planned to payout 90,000 claims that had been erroneously caught up in fraud investigations, possibly for months.
But DES didn't share that important information with ABC15. Employees just happened to have seen a tweet from another media out. It turns out DES had information on Tuesday, but instead of getting the word out to as many desperate Arizonans as quickly as possible, the agency held that news until Wednesday evening, after granting an interview to one news outlet.
Throughout the pandemic, DES has received close to 600 media inquiries, according to a tweet from Ducey spokesman Patrick Ptak.
Yet despite extremely high interest in the agency that serves as the lifeline for unemployed Arizonans waiting for help, only one DES director, Tom Betlach has ever been made available at press conference. Current director Michael Wisehart, who has been on the job since June, has not made an appearance at a press conference, instead granting an interview every now and then to news outlets that DES chooses to make him available to.
At Thursday's press conference, ABC15 and other news outlets asked Governor Doug Ducey when Wisehart would be available at his press conferences given that he runs such a critical agency that has been plagued with problems, and Arizonans can't get through to ask questions on their own.
Ducey said the agency was focused on getting the money out to people who need it.
"At DES, their focus has been on 100 percent getting the dollars to Arizonans not to returning reporters calls," he said. After reminding the governor that reporters are asking questions on behalf of Arizonans, he agreed to have Wisehart available a press conference saying, "We can make that happen."