RALEIGH, N.C. (WTVD) -- Where's the money? That's the question we continue to hear from frustrated unemployed workers fighting for their benefits.
Since the COVID-19 pandemic started, Troubleshooter Diane Wilson has continued to help those frustrated with the system get their benefits. To date, we have heard from more than 1,000 viewers.
Wake Forest residents Bambi and Randy Berger are just two of the people who need help. Bambi Berger emailed Troubleshooter Diane Wilson, "My husband & I desperately need your help with our PUA unemployment claims, please! We are both sole-proprietors. I applied for PUA on April 27, 2020, & my husband applied on April 28, 2020, after being out of work since the end of March! We have been waiting for almost EIGHT weeks, and our claims are still pending! We have made over ONE HUNDRED calls to DES and most times could not even get through to speak to someone!"
Bambi Berger owns Furry Friends Pet Sitting and her husband is a photographer and owns Berger Photography. When COVID-19 cases started to rise in the state, both lost the majority of her business. Despite filing for unemployment benefits with the North Carolina Division of Employment Security, both had trouble with their claims.
They said they made countless calls to DES, and though they eventually got through, they still struggled to get answers.
"They would tell us they would escalate our claims," Bambi Berger said. "That never happened. We never received a call back from them ever. We were told there were different completely issues with each of our claims. Everyone was giving us a different story, it was the most frustrating thing you could imagine and no one was willing to help."
Randy Berger said as they waited nine weeks for answers, the couple burned through their emergency funds.
Rachel Sokolowski also had trouble getting through to DES. "I called but nobody answered. I was on hold for about an hour and 15 minutes," she said.
Sokolowski's case was a little different. While she was getting unemployment benefits, she got a letter in the mail that she said made no sense.
"Out of nowhere, I just got a letter in the mail and email that stated that I had been overpaid," Sokolowski said. The letters from the state claimed she was overpaid thousands in unemployment benefits.
Sokolowski said she had proof she was furloughed due to COVID-19 from her job. "They wanted me to pay the money back. They said I owed it, almost all the money that was given to me," she said.
She said she filed an appeal and also tried to reach anyone at the state to get answers but couldn't get through. "I was a little bit panicked because it made no sense," Sokolowski said.
Both Sokolowski and the Berger's turned to Troubleshooter Diane Wilson. "I knew if you were willing to help us, you could get this cleared up," Bambi Berger said.
Troubleshooter Diane Wilson reached out to the NC Division of Employment Security and got not only these three cases, but several others to representatives who got right on the case. DES employees reached out to those who were having trouble getting answers.
Sokolowski said, "Everything was resolved, basically within 24 hours, so I thank you so much for that. I really appreciate that." She said a DES representative admitted the overpayment letters were issued in error. She doesn't owe any of the benefits back, and DES did start her benefits again.
When it came to the Bergers' cases, after more than nine weeks of waiting for benefits, both Randy and Bambi finally got their unemployment money.
"We know for a fact if you had not helped us we would still be waiting right here for these claims to be processed," Bambi Berger said. "We will be forever grateful to you."
A representative for DES said they are making steady progress on clearing the backlog of claims and bringing all claims to a timely resolution. She added that as of August 12, more than 1.2 million North Carolinians have filed for unemployment benefits during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Of those claimants, more than 852,000 people, or 69%, have been paid benefits.
Approximately 305,000 people, or 25%, have been found ineligible for benefits.
In addition, 4% of claimants have been found ineligible for state benefits and have a claim for federal benefits that is pending a resolution, and 2% of claimants have a claim for state unemployment benefits that is pending a resolution.
In the last eight weeks, the percentage of claimants with a pending claim for state unemployment insurance benefits has dropped from 7% to 2%.
The representative also said they have about 3,000 employees working on claims, which includes permanent DES staff, temporary employees, employees from other state agencies and contracted call center agents.
When Troubleshooter Diane Wilson asked how many of those employees can specifically handle complicated cases, the DES representative said, "We are recruiting and training new staff on a continual basis, and the number can fluctuate some week to week. Not every employee has the access or authority to resolve every issue. While we are working hard to issue benefits in a timely manner, claims include a lot of personal information, and we also need to prevent fraud and protect the integrity of the unemployment benefits system."
Besides working through the backlog of unemployment claims, Troubleshooter Diane Wilson continues to investigate fraudulent unemployment claims that worked their way through the system.