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DES director elusive, unavailable as unemployment questions mount

Posted at 9:26 PM, May 13, 2020
and last updated 2020-05-14 07:35:19-04

PHOENIX — Tom Betlach is responsible for overseeing the distribution of more than $1 billion to hundreds of thousands of Arizonans. But lately, the head of the Arizona DES has been MIA.

Betlach was at the governor's press conference on April 7 to discuss the massive influx of unemployment claims that overwhelmed his Department of Economic Security (DES).

Since that day in early April though, Director Betlach has not done a single on-camera interview, despite being a public official making $215,000, according to the state job posting he filled.

In the past month ABC15 has repeatedly asked for an on-camera interview. In the past week alone one reporter has been "politely" denied an interview.

When pressed for a reason behind the denial, a spokesperson said:

"Tom Betlach is working around the clock with our agency teams to ensure Arizona families are receiving the assistance and support they need during this uncertain time, and is not available to participate in an interview."

Arizonans, though, want answers.

"There are always things that are out of his control, but there are other states have gotten this up and running in weeks," said Isis Bravo, who was furloughed from her job at JCPenney in Yuma.

Bravo is one of the tens of thousands of Arizonans struggling to get any unemployment money. She says she has been filing since late March.

"I called 200 times in one day and could not get through," she said, after being denied because her part-time job and minimum wage salary took her out of standard unemployment eligibility.

Michael Cruz of Peoria experienced the same thing when he tried to figure out why his initial unemployment request was denied.

"You call the call center and no one answers. It’s just long messages - 'please call back,'" said Cruz, who had his hours cut down to eight a week at his Dollar General store.

Early Wednesday morning, both Cruz and Bravo applied for the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program, which was set up to help those initially ineligible for regular unemployment insurance - "including self-employed, independent contractors, and gig economy workers."

The new DES site, which cost $2 million to get up and running, was delayed six hours until after midnight.

"I got the notification that it was running and I immediately applied," said Bravo.

"I guess I’m still hopeful. We’ll see," said Cruz, who was informed his application met the criteria and went through for processing.

Like so many, the two are counting on the government's help to help pay the bills. They also have a message for Mr. Betlach.

"Do better, really," said Bravo. "I’m glad the system is in place now, but it really took too long."

"As long as we know what’s going on we can’t really be that upset," said Cruz.

While the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program officially launched Wednesday morning, DES says they had been reviewing people's claims who were initially ineligible for regular unemployment, and have already sent 350 million dollars in pandemic funds to 165,000 Arizonans in need.