PHOENIX — Hundreds of thousands of Arizonans are currently relying on the government for financial help every week. Since the pandemic began, more than two million unemployment claims have been filed.
The Arizona Department of Economic Security (DES) has paid out $5,003,905,223 through June 27.
The agency though, has been plagued with problems. Desperate parents have contacted ABC15 to report a glitching system, help lines that almost never lead to a real person, dropped calls after hours of waiting, payments being held up, and an overall cumbersome process that leaves people more discouraged than assisted.
'WE NEED TO MOVE FASTER AND BE BETTER'
"We recognize the frustrations that Arizonans feel," said Michael Wisehart, who took over as DES director on June 1.
Watch full interview with DES Director Michael Wisehart in the video player above.
"These are complicated cases in complicated situations, in a complicated program, with brand new people," Wisehart continued. "So we continue to get better every single day, but there are challenges and we definitely feel for the Arizonans that are struggling to access these benefits."
Wisehart says Arizona is far from the only state that has had their antiquated systems strained and struggled to meet the unprecedented demand.
"Every other state in the nation struggling in battling with the same issues that we are fighting with here," he said. "It doesn’t help solve Arizona’s problems for me to say that the entire nation is struggling. So we dig in, and every day we attempt to make a difference."
Wisehart says he is trying to get more people hired at call centers to process the complaints and issues people continue to face.
"We are trying to monitor social media and pay attention to what folks are saying and what challenges they are experiencing. We are adding staff to the call center, we have added hundreds already. There are another hundred on the way right now."
"I would give them an 'F'"
Randy Mayes of Gilbert has been trying to get in touch with someone at the call center since April when he lost his job.
"As of now I believe I’ve tried 88 times to try and get through to the unemployment line, and I cannot get through," he said. "Two months later, still have not received a dime of my unemployment. even though the money has been approved.
Mayes, like many, wants more accountability and transparency.
"From the outside looking in, this looks like a raging case of mismanagement. It should not be this hard to get ahold of somebody."
Entire communities have formed on Facebook of people looking to help each other through the process, vent their frustrations, and anguish together at the widespread problems.
"I would give them an 'F'," said Bruce Johnston, a handyman from Buckeye who languished in limbo for more than 12 weeks while waiting for his more than $9,000 in "Pandemic Unemployment Assistance" benefits to process.
"I would give it a raging failure," said Mayes, when asked to assign the agency a letter grade.
"I’m not going to assign a letter grade. I’m going to tell you that I love and revere the people that choose to do this work, on the front lines of this pandemic, and the most challenging circumstances that we could ever find ourselves in," said Wisehart. "We will get better every single day as we continue to navigate this challenging time."
WILL THERE BE MORE HELP?
Everyone Arizonan, and American, dealing with unemployment is worried about July 25th.
That is the day when the federal CARES Act, which provides $600-per-week in pandemic assistance, ends.
At that point, hundreds of Arizona businesses will still be in a mandatory closure due to the governor's latest executive order.
"I recognize the significant drop off in the $600 federal pandemic money is going to be a huge hit to households," said Wisehart.
When asked about increasing financial assistance in Arizona if the federal government doesn't step up and fill that gap, Wisehart replied, "Yeah, we will continue those ongoing policy conversations with leadership in the state."
'THE FRAUDSTERS ARE VERY, VERY GOOD'
Criminals are capitalizing on confusion and influx in claims, and stealing potentially millions of taxpayer dollars.
"The fraudsters are very, very good at what they do," said Wisehart.
ABC15 has reported how hundreds of Arizonans, who never requested unemployment benefits, have suddenly been receiving debit cards in the mail.
"What happened there is that fraudsters, somewhere in the world, accessed that Arizonan's information, likely through one of the large data breaches that occurred...and all you need to file a PUA claim is name, date of birth, Social Security number and address," said Wisehart.
So criminals across the world have been cashing in.
"You enter an Arizonan’s information, you put in direct deposit information and you try to get money deposited in that account," said Wisehart, who pointed out that if the bank account information is declined then a debit card is immediately processed and mailed.
Wisehart says DES is working with law enforcement to try and catch the culprits and recoup the cash.
"Working with the FBI, Secret Service, the Department of Labor Inspector General. We are getting tips on potential fraud rings and we are acting on those as we move forward," he said. "We are definitely not catching all of it. But we are catching the majority of it."
THE PRICE OF STOPPING FRAUDULENT PAYMENTS
Identifying the fraud comes at the expense of many Arizonans.
"Every time we try and take steps to curb the fraudulent activity, we also, inherently to the process, hold up payments to eligible, law abiding, needy Arizonans," said Wisehart, who said right now between 100,000 to 150,000 PUA claims have been delayed to review them more thoroughly.
Many Arizonans have taken to social media to express their anger and desperation over the delays.
One Twitter user, named Danielle, replied to DES saying: "I’m freaking out! I don’t have back up plans. I don’t have family help. And we depend on this as a family of 6! Please get going on this!"
Another wrote, "What's the status, my landlord gave me till Friday to pay or eviction. Send payments.. will not go homeless with my child because of this."
Wisehart says he recognizes the impact these decisions have.
"We are extremely thoughtful in the way that we move forward with that," he said. "We have to figure out a way to get those individuals paid. It is our number one priority right now."
As COVID continues to keep hundreds of thousands of Arizonans from working, they do not care about the $5 billion DES has paid in the past. All they care about is their next check depositing or showing up in the mail on time.
"They are in such a vulnerable situation. So we just need to move faster and be better."
While Wisehart's job is mostly numbers and dollars, not ICUs and ventilators, he still had a message for Arizonans regarding public health.
"Whether you feel comfortable about wearing a mask for health reasons, I ask that you do it for economic reasons," he said. "These people that are struggling in Arizona, that can’t work, because of the spread of the pandemic. The number one way we can stop that is to wear masks...Do it for your neighbor’s job, because they need that."