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Op-Ed: DEW Assesses Progress in 2020 and Pushes Forward in 2021

Fri, 01/29/2021

DEW: Five Billion Dollars Paid

 

With 2021 upon us, the S.C. Department of Employment and Workforce is looking back over the last ten months to see not only how far we have come, but also a look to what’s in store for the new year. This pandemic, unlike more typical economic recessions, has brought unforeseen challenges and while there are certainly lessons learned and things we could have done differently, the truth is, our agency has done a lot of things right.

Five Billion Dollars Paid: Since March 15, 2020, the agency has paid out more than $5 billion in benefits. That is almost as much in unemployment benefits in the last ten months as we paid out in the previous 10 years. Take a moment to let that really set in.

800,000 Claims: The tidal wave of more than 800,000 unemployment claims that has flooded the system since March has translated into an equally overwhelming landslide in workloads throughout the unemployment insurance process – adjudication, fraud, appeals, etc. In the last ten months, DEW has received the equivalent number of initial claims as it normally receives in more than five-years. Five years of work handled in ten months.

Five New Federal Programs: In addition to processing the unprecedented claim levels, our agency was tasked with implementing five new federal programs – PUA, PEUC, EB, LWA, and FPUC. In addition, we had to implement a new system for reimbursement of the first claim week without delay. We also supported legislation proposed by Sen. Tim Scott that allowed a financial break for non-profits and other reimbursable employers, not only in South Carolina, but also across the country (Protecting Nonprofits from Catastrophic Cash Flow Strain Act).

If you look at the news around the country, you can get a sense of what other states have experienced with systems’ crashing, depletion of trust funds, rampant UI fraud and identity theft, and more. While our agency had its own set of problems, South Carolina has fared better than most. This is due, in part, to proper planning in the years leading up to the pandemic, quick and effective reactions that led to solutions and close partnership with the governor’s office, and the General Assembly throughout.

The Call Center: Our main problem in the beginning was helping claimants who could not get through the computerized system. While we rely upon our call center to help people through such issues in normal times, our staffing was nowhere near the level needed to handle the increased issues. That was solely due to the historic low unemployment our state was experiencing leading up to the economic shutdown. DEW is a federally funded agency. And, federal funding is reduced in times of low employment, which leads to a lean staffing model. The call center staffing level we had in March was appropriate for the workload at that time and was all we could afford under our federal funding.

We knew hiring quickly was priority one. The agency ramped up the call center staff from roughly 50 to more than 550 people within a few weeks. In addition to adding many new faces to the team, we shifted existing staff to divisions to help manage the exploding workload as it moved through the different steps of the process. Simultaneously, staff has been conducting training in order to help these new employees and contractors gain experience in navigating the complexity of unemployment insurance, while educating all agency staff about the ins and outs of the radically overhauled process that are part of the federal programs.

It was evident, almost immediately, that adding staff to assist on the phones was the right move. Our call center quickly became the lifeline for claimants to get a hold of our agency. We extended call center hours, added weekend hours during peak times, made improvements to our IVR (the automated phone system technology), and utilized the phone system’s hold functions to provide vital updates and education about processes, deadlines and eligibility. From mid-March through November, our call center staff answered more than 2.4 million calls.

The Unemployment Insurance Trust Fund: The Unemployment Insurance Trust Fund was fully solvent and ready for a recession. While federal programs are fully funded by federal dollars, regular unemployment insurance benefits, or state UI, is paid for by South Carolina employers. In order to help offset an already challenging year, the General Assembly approved up to $920 million of CARES Act funding. This allowed our agency to forgo employer tax hikes across the board in 2021.

Many states were not so fortunate and are now facing further financial recovery after incurring considerable debt. Currently, 21 states are borrowing or have outstanding balances on federal loans. Meanwhile in South Carolina, as of late January, our UI Trust Fund balance is approximately $1.15 billion. Now, loan forgiveness is being pushed by several large states who were not prepared financially and had to borrow heavily. We oppose that. Any money from the feds to shore up the trust fund should be based on a benefits-paid basis rather than whether a state borrowed money.

Coursera: Our agency partnered with Coursera, the leading online learning platform, to launch the Coursera Workforce Recovery Initiative in South Carolina. This initiative was intended for worker retraining and reskilling for unemployed insurance participants who were displaced from work as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Due to our partnership with Coursera, the tuition was covered and claimants did not have to pay for access to courses. We communicated important registration information about the opportunity to claimants by email sent through their claimant portal. Nearly 4,000 South Carolinians registered for courses, which covered various skillsets including Business, Technology, Data Science, Health, Social Sciences, and Arts and Humanities. Some of the courses included professional certificates designed specifically to train people to return to work in high-demand jobs. As we move into the New Year, massive upgrades and changes have and will continue to be made to enhance and improve the customer experience.

Project Job One: We launched this new program to help link jobseekers with actively hiring employers. In addition to the more than 100 job fairs held since May and other free jobseeker services offered through our partners at SC Works centers statewide, we are now leveraging technology in the SC Works Online Services (SCWOS) jobs portal. We are crossreferencing skill sets and similar job history provided during an initial claim filing, and if we see someone worked in machinery and we have a job posting available in SCWOS, we are sending a direct email to that claimant, who lives in that geographical area, notifying them about the job and how to apply. That is the power of connection and leveraging our technology! To date, we have sent more than 1.7 million re-employment texts and emails to claimants.

GED: Our agency has launched an effort to encourage unemployment claimants without a high school degree to earn their GED while on unemployment. This project is being conducted in conjunction with Adult Education. The training will not interfere with a claimant’s benefits. We know, and we are trying to explain to claimants, that a GED means an additional $7,000, on average, for a South Carolina worker.

Work Search: For South Carolinians looking for their next job, there are two things they can do. First, conduct a job search in SCWOS. It is the best method of finding good available jobs. Second, go to an SC Works Center and talk with a career coach to determine job opportunities, training, etc. Go now! We know that the best jobs go first. For all the claimants who are drawing benefits and not looking for a job, please remember that the best jobs may not be open when your benefits terminate. Our agency is offering various tools and free resources to help people with getting a job.

2021: As we propel into the new year of 2021, we have already implemented three new additional federal programs, and have one more to go. We will continue our attempts to overhaul the MyBenefits portal to make it more user friendly. In addition, we will concentrate intensely on the need for claimants to find a job. We are happy with the successes we have had and are working diligently to overcome our continuing challenges.