PHOENIX — A state representative says an old, neglected computer system is part of the reason the Arizona Department of Economic Security can't keep up with surge in unemployment insurance applications amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
According to DES, the department was receiving an average of about 3,500 claims a week about a month ago. That number last week was 129,000 claims. This week, DES leaders said the unemployment insurance call center gets 70 calls per second.
The system is overwhelmed.
ABC15 has spoken to many people seeking benefits who said it was nearly impossible to speak to someone on the phone. And those who did had to wait between two to four hours on the phone.
Arizona Representative Mitzi Epstein said one of the biggest issues in meeting the high demand of applications and implementing new programs is an old computer system that's been neglected for years.
She said budget cuts have prevented necessary upgrades and planning that could've better equipped the department to deal with the current demand.
"Year after year our budget request is for money to update computer systems in state agencies, and year after year, that's the lowest priority. That's the priority that gets cut," she said. "It takes a lot of maintenance, it takes people. We have to make the investment in our computer systems in order for our state to be competitive in the 21st century."
DES has made some updates to its website about the new federal unemployment insurance programs under the CARES Act, but many of the system changes have been slow, and there are still many updates left to implement.
There is still very little information about how and where people can apply for specific programs and what people who were denied Arizona benefits should do if they want to apply for the federal programs.
Friday, DES spokesperson Brett Bezio sent ABC15 this information:
"DES is evaluating guidance from DOL regarding the extended eligibility for those who historically have not been eligible but who will be covered under the new Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) program. However, implementation of this provision will require significant system changes. We are accepting applications for PUA, and these initial claims will be processed once the system modifications are in place, even if the initial claim was denied for state UI benefits. We will be issuing guidance on next steps.
DES is making system changes needed to make the additional $600 payment this week, and our target is to begin to make the additional $600 payments to individuals who have active claims in the system by the end of next week. This should include retroactive payments for individuals with active claims back to March 29, 2020."
The department has increased staff in its unemployment insurance call centers from 13 to over 150 people, and about 20 additional staff will start taking calls next week, according to Bezio.
DES Director Tom Betlach this week said the department is also looking to partner with a private sector organization to expand capacity.
You can apply for unemployment insurance here.