PHOENIX — A report from the agency tasked with investigating consumer complaints about Arizona's government agencies believes one woman's case shines a light on "systemic" issues at Arizona's Department of Economic Security, particularly during the height of the pandemic.
The report released by the Arizona Ombudsman Citizens' Aide details how one woman complained to the ombudsman's office in August 2021 after trying for months to get tax records from DES.
After the Ombudsman Citizens' Aide stepped in and struggled to get in touch with DES as well, the woman received her records a couple of months later.
"It just took an unreasonable amount of time," Danee Garone, Senior Staff Attorney at the Arizona Ombudsman Citizens' Aide, said.
But why release a several-page report to the public, legislature, governor's office and DES?
Garone said, in part, because of what else the Ombudsman Citizens' Aide had heard from other Arizonans about the agency.
"It was indicative of some of the trends we had seen during the pandemic, where communication had gotten worse with DES, timelines had gotten stretched out, it was hard to figure out who to talk to or get in contact with people at DES," Garone said.
Among other things, the Ombudsman Citizens' Aide found "DES acted unreasonably and performed in an inefficient or discourteous manner" by not responding to the woman.
"We believe that DES’s failures in this matter are indicative of systemic issues within DES. This belief is bolstered by DES’s admission that its shortcomings in this matter were 'due to the significant increase in workload in the ADES Division of Employment and Rehabilitation Services’ (DERS) Unemployment Insurance (UI) Program," the report said in part.
The report notes the Ombudsman Citizens' Aide has received a 'significant increase' in complaints about DES since the pandemic began in early 2020.
In the office's 2021 Fiscal Year report, the Ombudsman Citizens' Aide notes complaints increased from 55 cases in the fiscal year 2019 to 3,109 cases in the fiscal year 2021 related to DES' unemployment insurance program.
The most common complaints were DES not answering phones and the department not responding in a reasonable amount of time.
In addition to the findings in the June 2022 report, staff recommends, among other things, that the state legislature consider an audit of DES and its communication with Arizonans.
"Was it something temporary that's starting to alleviate because it was a once-in-a-lifetime crisis? Was it something that maybe pre-existing but maybe previously unnoticeable cracks, bigger? Whatever - the Auditor General can help give a better picture to the legislature so they can decide what to do, if anything," Garone said.
In response to the report, DES Director Michael Wisehart writes he disagrees with the Ombudsman Citizens' Aide findings that the agency "improperly denied" the records to the woman requesting them.
Wisehart acknowledges in his response DES did not respond to the woman promptly because of "the significant increase in workload" at DES during the pandemic. Wisehart further noted that DES distributed over $16 billion in federal pandemic-era unemployment benefits to 2.2 million Arizonans from 2020 to 2022.
To help with "timely resolution," Wisehart said a case tracking software was installed as part of the Unemployment Insurance program in February 2022.
However, DES recently told 12News, that the agency has had to cut staff because of a drop in federal funding.
"We will continue to seek out new opportunities to continuously improve the ways in which we respond and engage with the public, particularly with those who have difficulty finding resolution within our programs and services," A DES spokesperson told 12News in part of an email statement.
While Garone said complaints related to DES have decreased in 2022, he said the Ombudsman Citizens' Aide still does get other complaints about the agency, lately related to overpayment notices and the Emergency Rental Assistance Program.
"I think DES has gotten better at managing, potentially, a higher load. You know, because it was originally pretty unexpected. But I think the load has decreased a bit, you know, a lot of the pandemic craziness has finally subsided," Garone said.
Regarding when someone should reach out with a complaint about any state agency, Garone recommended people try and resolve within the agency they're having an issue with first, but if it's not getting resolved, people can reach out to the Ombudsman Citizens' Aide office online or by phone.
More information on the complaint procedure can be found here.
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