Unemployment Overpayments: Fraud or Flawed System?
By Pamela M. Prah, Staff Writer
The reality is a lot more complicated, as the U.S. Department of Labor itself noted when it reported state-by-state numbers last month. While fraud was responsible for a small part of the overall "improper payments" figure, much of the total came from less devilish glitches, such as failing to provide proof that a payment went to the right person. The total also included cases where beneficiaries were underpaid , in addition to the cases where the government paid them too much.
Louisiana is one state that has found itself on the defensive. Federal figures showed that 44 percent of its unemployment insurance payments were "improper."
"The numbers being reported … for Louisiana are not all overpayments," Curt Eysink, executive director of the Louisiana Workforce Commission, said in a statement. "Nor should those amounts be collectively viewed as 'waste, fraud and abuse.'" Eysink notes that what the federal government called "overpayments" largely went to unemployed workers who were eligible to receive unemployment benefits; the problem was that the state couldn't prove that these people had formally registered with the state to say they have searched for jobs.
Crunch time for unemployment insurance
The issue is a sensitive one for state unemployment offices, which have been crushed by heavy workloads as joblessness remains stuck above 9 percent nationally. In the first year of the recession, states saw a 120 percent increase in claims from unemployed workers.
The program, run jointly by the federal government and the states, provides monthly benefits to workers who become unemployed through no fault of their own. Most states have had to borrow money from the federal government to keep checks going to the jobless; last month, states had to start paying interest on those loans.
The stepped-up scrutiny of jobless benefits is part of the Obama administration's government-wide effort to reduce the $125 billion in "improper payments" the government made in 2010. Unemployment insurance was named one of the "high-error" programs. That was partly because the error rate of 11 percent was more than double the 5 percent rate that the administration set as a doable goal. The enormous size of the program, which paid out $156 billion in benefits last year, also was a factor.
Nationwide, Indiana and Louisiana had the highest error rates, with improper payments accounting for more than 43 percent of the total amount paid in both states. Others that landed high on the list include Arizona (20 percent), Colorado (17 percent) and Virginia (18 percent). There's no financial penalty for states with high error rates, but until they get their error rates down below 10 percent, they're subject to greater federal scrutiny and reporting requirements.
States say the federal campaign has left the perception that fraud is primarily to blame for their error rates. In fact, the federal government's own estimate says that 2.4 percent of unemployment insurance benefits were overpaid due to fraud in 2010.
By and large, factors other than fraud are driving error rates. For example, many of the states under federal scrutiny are experiencing "work search" errors that they say are a result of dramatic changes in how people today file for unemployment benefits and look for jobs. Gone are the days when people had to step into a state unemployment office to fill out the paperwork and sit down with a case worker to talk about which employers they applied to for jobs. Nowadays, unemployment insurance applications and job searches are done online and employers don't always save the hundreds of résumés they receive electronically.
Kevan Kaighn, of Arizona's Department of Economic Security, suggests the reporting mechanisms may not have kept up with the times. "Arizona has historically asked employers to confirm that a claimant did apply," Kaighn says. "If the employer was not able to provide verification … the Department would count the claim as an error."
Complaints of unfairness
Some states also say they are being faulted for having stricter standards than the feds. Nearly 80 percent of Indiana's improper payment problem was due to difficulties tracking things that the state requires but the federal government doesn't. For instance, the unemployed in Indiana must show they have looked for work with three employers. If a recipient lists only one job or lists incomplete information for the other two, those are counted as errors, explains Valerie Kroeger of the state's Department of Workforce Development.
The U.S. Department of Labor says it has been working with states since last year on these kinds of issues. The department says it's only fair to assess states based on their own rules, but agrees that the wide variation in state unemployment systems may make it misleading to compare different states on their payment accuracy rates. "States with stringent or complex provisions tend to have higher improper payment rates than those with simpler, more straightforward provisions," the department says on its website.
The private sector also has a role in improving the accuracy of payment information. One of five overpayments nationwide occurs because the worker's last employer didn't provide the state accurate or timely information about layoffs or hiring. The result can be people receiving benefits that they may not be entitled to. "We are trying to get the message out to employers how important this is," says Joyce Fogg of Virginia's Employment Commission.
Nationally, the leading cause of overpayments is when once-unemployed workers find jobs and continue to claim jobless benefits. On this front, the Labor Department encourages states to check the information from unemployment claims against a large national database of all new hires. Washington State, which has been doing this for years but nevertheless posted an error rate of 14 percent, estimates that these matches uncovered half of all its fraud-related claims. According to the National Employment Law Project, an advocacy group, states typically recover about half of the money lost to improper payments.
James Sherk of the Heritage Foundation says states have a point that the headline numbers would lead people to believe that more fraud occurs than actually does, but says states still need to fix the problems. "The state should not be continuing to send checks to workers after they have returned to work, and it should be verifying the work-search requirements are met," Sherk says. "Those and other requirements exist for a reason and need to be enforced."
Outdated technology blamed
What many states say they need most is money to replace outdated computers, which they say account for many of the problems. Arizona and Colorado are part of four-state consortium that was recently awarded $72 million in federal funds to replace archaic systems. "This represents a desperately needed modernization," says Kaighn of Arizona, who says the state is currently using 1980s mainframe technology.
Washington State estimates it will cost more than $100 million to replace its two main computers involved in processing unemployment claims. The state is spending $54 million to replace the main tax computer and has set side another $30 million for the benefits side. According to Sheryl Hutchison, a spokeswoman for the state's Employment Security Department, it will probably take up to eight years for those projects to finish.