RALEIGH — The head of the Division of Employment Security told legislators Thursday that the time it takes for the state to handle upper-level appeals of claims for unemployment benefits are meeting federal standards for the first time in years.
Dale Folwell, addressing a legislative committee that oversees the state’s unemployment benefits system, said in February the state Board of Review took an average of 33 days to handle “higher appeals.” That’s down from an average of 270 days in December 2012 and within the 40-day federal standard.
“I’m told that it’s within the guidelines for the U.S. Department of Labor maybe for the first time in this century,” Folwell said.
It’s actually been even longer than that. Employment Security issued a press release after the committee meeting concluded that boasted that the the federal standard was being met “for the first time in more than 30 years.”
Folwell has made reducing the agency’s backlog a priority since he took the helm a year ago. The state has consistently ranked last among the states in handling upper-level appeals.
Upper-level appeals are the second level of appeals involving employment benefits. Those appeals can be made by either unemployed workers who have been denied benefits or by employers who challenge whether benefits are warranted.
Today upper-level appeals are heard by the independent Board of Review, but Folwell previously handled them himself. The three-person review board didn’t exist until Gov. Pat McCrory appointed board members in December, and the board didn’t start hearing appeals until the end of January.
The agency also has reduced the timeline for lower appeals, which are handled by referees. Those cases were handled in an average of 40 days in February, down from 94 days in December 2012. The federal guideline is less than 30 days.
According to agency data, what it has always called its “backlog” of claims awaiting an initial decision stood at 12,945 last week, up from 12,415 in February but down from 13,912 in December.
Calling this a backlog is somewhat of a misnomer, however, because it will never be whittled down to zero. The state currently is receiving more than 5,000 new unemployment claims a week.
The more important number is that 9,450 of its pending cases are more than 21 days old, which is the federal guidlines for initial decisions. Comparable past numbers aren’t available from the state; it didn’t previously break out how many of its pending cases were more than 21 days old.
Folwell said the state’s pending cases that dated back to January or prior months had been cleared. In February legislators were complaining that claims going back several months were still awaiting decisions — a huge problem for jobless workers who rely on unemployment checks to pay their bills.