CA’s unemployment fraud may top $9 billion, doubling estimate, expert warns

From today’s Los Angeles Times:

As an army of investigators tries to pin down the scope of unemployment benefit fraud in California, the head of a security firm working for the state is warning that payments of fraudulent claims could more than double the $4 billion previously estimated, and that a flood of those claims involve overseas crime rings.

At least 10% of unemployment claims may have been fraudulent before controls were installed in October, according to Blake Hall, founder and chief executive of the company ID.me., which has been hired by the state Employment Development Department to weed out fraud. A 10% fraud rate could total $9.8 billion of the benefits paid from March through September.

Much of the fraud in California and other states is coming from organized criminal gangs operating in some 20 foreign countries, including Russia, China, Nigeria, Ghana, Turkey and Bulgaria, Hall said.

“When the Russians and the Nigerians and the Chinese are the players on the field, they are going to put up some points,” Hall told The Times. “This is a very sophisticated cyberattack that’s being run at scale.”

Hall’s firm was hired by the EDD to begin checking unemployment claims in October, and since then 30% of the claims it screened turned out to be fraudulent. Between Oct. 1 and Jan. 11, Hall said his firm blocked 463,724 fraudulent claims, which he said would represent more than $9 billion if the EDD had paid $20,000 on each claim.

The EDD has so far paid out $113 billion in unemployment benefits during the 10 months of the COVID-19 pandemic, including $43 billion as part of an expedited — and less secure — Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program for independent contractors, gig workers and the self-employed.

State officials were recently warned by Bank of America, which is under contract with the EDD to issue debit cards to distribute benefits, that there is evidence that fraud could total more than $4 billion in California. A task force of county, state and federal law enforcement officers and prosecutors is continuing an investigation to identify all of the fraud, which has also involved claims in the names of prison inmates.

Read the complete article here.

OnlyFans: Jobless from the Pandemic, Selling Nudes Online and Still Struggling

From today’s New York Tiimes:

Savannah Benavidez stopped working at her job as a medical biller in June to take care of her 2-year-old son after his day care shut down. Needing a way to pay her bills, she created an account on OnlyFans — a social media platform where users sell original content to monthly subscribers — and started posting photos of herself nude or in lingerie.

Ms. Benavidez, 23, has made $64,000 since July, enough not just to take care of her own bills, but to help family and friends with rent and car payments.

“It’s more money than I have ever made in any job,” she said. “I have more money than I know what to do with.”

Lexi Eixenberger was hoping for a similar windfall when she started an OnlyFans account in November. A restaurant worker in Billings, Mont., Ms. Eixenberger, 22, has been laid off three times during the pandemic and was so in need of cash by October that she had to drop out of dental hygiene school. After donating plasma and doing odd jobs, she still didn’t have enough to pay her bills, so at the suggestion of some friends, she turned to OnlyFans. She has made only about $500 so far.

OnlyFans, founded in 2016 and based in Britain, has boomed in popularity during the pandemic. As of December, it had more than 90 million users and more than one million content creators, up from 120,000 in 2019. The company declined to comment for this article.

With millions of Americans unemployed, some like Ms. Benavidez and Ms. Eixenberger are turning to OnlyFans in an attempt to provide for themselves and their families. The pandemic has taken a particularly devastating toll on women and mothers, wiping out parts of the economy where women dominate: retail businesses, restaurants and health care.

“A lot of people are migrating to OnlyFans out of desperation,” said Angela Jones, an associate professor of sociology at the State University of New York at Farmingdale. “These are people who are worried about eating, they’re worried about keeping the lights on, they’re worried about not being evicted.”

But for every person like Ms. Benavidez, who is able to use OnlyFans as her primary source of income, there are dozens more, like Ms. Eixenberger, who hope for a windfall and end up with little more than a few hundred dollars and worries that the photos will hinder their ability to get a job in the future.

Sen. Ron Wyden: Capitol riots prove we must strengthen American democracy by protecting voting rights for all

From NBC News Online:

On Jan. 6, at the behest of the outgoing president of the United States, domestic terrorists attacked the legislative branch of the government of the United States. Bombs were left apparently targeting us, gunshots rang out, Molotov cocktails were brought to the building, and five deaths resulted from the melee on the Capitol grounds. It remains unclear who — if anyone — was in command of the military when officials were pleading for help from the National Guard, which didn’t receive orders to assist for several hours. It’s a miracle that the insurrection failed, that the building didn’t burn and that many more people weren’t killed.

At 8 p.m. on Wednesday, my colleagues and I walked past shards of glass and refuse left behind by the insurrectionist mob to resume debate on the certification of Joe Biden’s victory. Some of my fellow senators said they felt that returning to the chamber and finishing the Electoral College count was a signal that America was already turning the page.

Not in my book.

In the wake of this attack, Democrats must use our majorities in Congress to pass reforms that will defend our democracy from the forces that supported, incited and fueled the riots — which means making it easier for every American to vote. Congress cannot — must not — move forward in the belief that the end of Donald Trump’s presidency means all is well in our country.

After all, what happened after police cleared the Capitol building and workers began cleaning up the wreckage and blood? Republicans walked right back into the House and Senate chambers and continued spreading the same lies about voters and voting rights that had drawn the mob to the Capitol in the first place.

Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, for instance, claimed that he just wanted an election commission to study the results in Arizona and Pennsylvania — where Biden won decisive victories. Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., claimed that he was just giving voice to his constituents’ concerns about election integrity by attempting to throw out the legally cast ballots of millions of Pennsylvanians. It was all nonsense.

Wednesday’s phony debate about counting the Electoral College ballots was just about two elected officials laundering a violent, fanatical conspiracy — one that had already done great harm to the country and the institution in which they serve — to further their own ambitions. It was nothing more than self-promotion and a barefaced, ham-handed attempt to delegitimize the next administration.

Read the complete article here.

Grocery chains nationwide ditching in-house delivery drivers in wake of Prop 22

From today’s Business Insider:

Albertsons and some of its subsidiaries, including Vons and Pavilions, are discontinuing their in-house delivery services in parts of California and other states starting in February. The grocery chains will instead rely more heavily on third-party delivery apps, including DoorDash, to handle grocery deliveries, local news outlet KNOCK reported Monday.

“In early December, Albertsons Companies made the strategic decision to discontinue using our own home delivery fleet of trucks in select locations, including Southern California, beginning February 27, 2021,” Albertsons spokesperson Andrew Whelan told Business Insider.

“We will transition that portion of our eCommerce operations to third-party logistics providers who specialize in that service. Our HR teams are working to place impacted associates in stores, plants, and distribution centers,” Whelan said.

Albertsons didn’t respond to questions about employees losing their jobs. In Texas, the company told the Dallas Morning News that it will also fire nearly 100 employees at Tom Thumb locations.

“With COVID-19 outbreaks spiraling out of control and overwhelming hospitals across California, it is stunning that Albertsons would fire these courageous and hard-working men and women keeping our food supply secure,” Marc Perrone, international president of United Food and Commercial Workers, a major union that represents many Albertsons workers, said in a press release, calling on Albertsons “to immediately halt these plans.”

The move comes weeks after a new California law went into effect that eliminated labor protections for app-based food delivery workers and rideshare drivers, which was authored and bankrolled by gig companies.

As DoorDash, Uber, Lyft, Instacart, and Postmates waged a $200 million battle last year to pass the bill, known as Proposition 22, they pointed to “independent” research claiming it would save as many as 900,000 jobs across the state (it turned out the companies had paid a combined $411,599 to the researchers behind the study).

Albertsons’ plans to cut in-house delivery and route new business to delivery companies like DoorDash, however, shows how Prop 22’s passage potentially pushes adjacent industries to consider cheaper labor options.

Read the complete article here.

Members of Trump Cabinet discussing invoking 25th Amendment

From ABC News Online:

There have been discussions among some members of Donald Trump’s Cabinet and his allies over invoking the 25th Amendment, a potential vehicle for removing the president from office, multiple sources with direct knowledge of the discussions told ABC News.

Un-American.' 'Treasonous.': North Texas leaders decry mob breach at U.S.  Capitol

It’s unclear how extensive these conversations have been or whether Vice President Mike Pence is supportive of such action. Many were horrified by Wednesday’s violence at the Capitol as well as Trump’s apparent lack of urgency in marshaling resources to stop the mob, the sources said.

Rep. Adam Kinzinger, R-Ill., on Thursday became the first Republican to publicly call for the invocation of the 25th Amendment to remove Trump from office.

The 25th Amendment, which was ratified in 1967 in the wake of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination in 1963, lays out the procedures for replacing the president in the event of death, removal, resignation or incapacitation.

“The president not only abdicated his duty to protect the American people and the people’s house, he invoked and inflamed passions that gave fuel to the insurrection we saw here,” Kinzinger said in a video posted to Twitter. “When pressed to move and denounce the violence he barely did so, while of course victimizing himself … all indications are that the president has become unmoored, not just from his duty, or even his health, but from reality itself.”

“It is for this reason that I call for the vice president and members of the cabinet to ensure that the next few weeks are safe for the American people, and that we have a sane captain of the ship,” Kinzinger said.

Read the complete article here.

Electoral Vote Count to Resume After Pro-Trump Mob Storms US Capitol

From today’s NBC News Washington:

A mob supporting President Donald Trump forced its way into the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday, surging past security barriers and delaying the constitutional process to affirm Joe Biden’s victory in the November election.

A woman died after being shot by law enforcement at the Capitol, sources told NBC News, and several officers and others were injured.

Rioters used chemical irritants on police in order to gain access to the Capitol grounds — D.C.’s acting police chief said — broke glass and waved Trump flags. 

Officials declared the U.S. Capitol complex “secure” at nearly 6 p.m. after heavily armed police moved to end a violent, nearly four-hour occupation. An announcement saying “the Capitol is secure” rang out Wednesday evening inside a secure location for officials of the House. Lawmakers applauded.

Members of Congress said they were stunned by the violence. Rep. Abigail Spanberger (D-Va.) said she had expected the day to be tense.

“Them actually entering the United States Capitol is not something anyone would have expected to see here in the United States of America. It it is a shameful and sad day for our democracy,” she said.

Rioters will be held responsible for the chaos, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser said.

“The behavior that we are witnessing is shameful, unpatriotic and, above all, it is unlawful,” she said at a news conference. “Anyone who has engaged in these activities, continues to engage in these activities, will be held accountable.”

Read the complete article here.

Hundreds of Google Employees Unionize, Culminating Years of Activism

From today’s New York Times:

More than 400 Google engineers and other workers have formed a union, the group revealed on Monday, capping years of growing activism at one of the world’s largest companies and presenting a rare beachhead for labor organizers in staunchly anti-union Silicon Valley.

We've Had Enough': Google Employees Form Union

The union’s creation is highly unusual for the tech industry, which has long resisted efforts to organize its largely white-collar work force. It follows increasing demands by employees at Google for policy overhauls on pay, harassment and ethics, and is likely to escalate tensions with top leadership.

The new union, called the Alphabet Workers Union after Google’s parent company, Alphabet, was organized in secret for the better part of a year and elected its leadership last month. The group is affiliated with the Communications Workers of America, a union that represents workers in telecommunications and media in the United States and Canada.

But unlike a traditional union, which demands that an employer come to the bargaining table to agree on a contract, the Alphabet Workers Union is a so-called minority union that represents a fraction of the company’s more than 260,000 full-time employees and contractors. Workers said it was primarily an effort to give structure and longevity to activism at Google, rather than to negotiate for a contract.

Chewy Shaw, an engineer at Google in the San Francisco Bay Area and the vice chair of the union’s leadership council, said the union was a necessary tool to sustain pressure on management so that workers could force changes on workplace issues.

“Our goals go beyond the workplace questions of ‘Are people getting paid enough?’ Our issues are going much broader,” he said. “It is a time where a union is an answer to these problems.”

In response, Kara Silverstein, Google’s director of people operations, said: “We’ve always worked hard to create a supportive and rewarding workplace for our work force. Of course, our employees have protected labor rights that we support. But as we’ve always done, we’ll continue engaging directly with all our employees.”

The new union is the clearest sign of how thoroughly employee activism has swept through Silicon Valley over the past few years. While software engineers and other tech workers largely kept quiet in the past on societal and political issues, employees at Amazon, Salesforce, Pinterest and others have become more vocal on matters like diversity, pay discrimination and sexual harassment.

Read the complete article here.

Trump pressures GA election official to ‘find’ winning votes in taped call

From today’s Los Angeles Times:

President Trump demanded that Georgia’s top election official help him “find” enough votes to overturn President-elect Joe Biden’s victory in the state, according to a phone recording made public Sunday that pointed to a brazen new chapter in the president’s attempt to overturn his election defeat.

In an hour-long phone call Saturday, reported Sunday by the Washington Post and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Trump cajoled, flattered and implicitly threatened Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, marshaling elaborate conspiracy theories to support his claim that he had won a state that Biden carried by almost 12,000 votes.

Raffensperger, a Republican, rejected the president’s blunt overtures, telling him: “The data that you have is wrong,” according to the audio recording. The Journal-Constitution said the authenticity of the recording was confirmed by two people involved in the conversation.

Legal experts and some Democrats suggested the president’s actions may have violated the law. Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), the Senate Democratic whip, issued a strongly worded statement urging a criminal investigation, saying Trump sought to “intimidate an elected official into deliberately changing and misrepresenting” a legally counted vote. Law professors, including Stanford’s Nate Persily, tweeted out relevant sections of Georgia’s election code.

Two months after the election, and almost three weeks after the electoral college certified Biden’s victory by a 306-232 margin, Trump is backing expected challenges to the results by congressional Republicans in a joint session of Congress on Wednesday that typically is ceremonial in nature. Scores of Republican House members and at least a dozen GOP senators have signaled support for the effort, which could result in hours of debate before each chamber is expected to reject the protest.

Republican plans to contest the election have generated scorn from establishment GOP figures, including Sens. Mitt Romney of Utah and Ben Sasse of Nebraska. On Sunday, seven conservative Republican House members issued an unusual joint statement announcing their opposition to the challenge, warning that congressional action “would amount to stealing power from the people and the states.”

Read the complete article here.

GoDaddy Emails Employees, Says They’ll Get $650 Holiday Bonus: It Turns Out To Be A Lump Of Coal

From today’s Forbes Magazine:

You’d like to believe that corporate executives could be compassionate and empathetic during a pandemic. The holiday season, a reasonable worker would think, is the perfect time for management to express their appreciation. 

If you’re an employee at GoDaddy, the large internet domain registration and website hosting company, this wasn’t the case. You received the equivalent of a lump of coal in your Christmas stockings.

It was reported that GoDaddy sent an email to its employees telling them that they’d receive a bonus. Well, that sounds great right? There’s more to the story. The accompanying note sounded nice, “2020 has been a record year for GoDaddy, thanks to you!” In what seemed to be a generous holiday surprise the company added, “Though we cannot celebrate together during our annual Holiday Party, we want to show our appreciation and share a $650 one-time Holiday bonus!” 

About 500 employees, excited to receive some much-needed cash during this horrific Covid-19 time, happily clicked on the link. The email asked the employees to complete a form calling for some personal details. Given the fact that they’re receiving a payment, the request seemed reasonable, especially since it came directly from the company and didn’t appear shady or questionable.   

In a surprising and shocking turn of events, the employees who clicked on the link received a follow-up email admonishing them. The chastising email from GoDaddy’s security chief sternly read, “You are receiving this email because you failed our recent phishing test.” There wasn’t a $650 bonus at all. What they did get was a mandatory training class for falling victim to a corporate-sponsored phishing exercise (the process in which hackers lure unsuspecting people to offer personal data which could comprise the individual and company) purposely designed to test their workers. 

Read the complete article here.

Unfair ratings cost some Instacart shoppers hundreds a week

From today’s New York Times:

Bags of groceries don’t just vanish into thin air. But in case the laws of physics ceased to exist, Loreen Zahara does her due diligence. The Instacart shopper keeps receipts for purchases and even photographs them upon delivery — on a customer’s stoop or in front of their garage.

Yet when one customer gave her a one-star rating over a missing bag of pineapples and another awarded her one star and claimed an entire order wasn’t delivered, it was Zahara who suffered the consequences: a loss of hundreds of dollars of potential earnings per week.

Instacart’s order-allocation system takes the “customer is always right” mantra to new extremes, some of its professional shoppers say. The grocery delivery company presents its workforce of independent contractors with orders based in part on their in-app ratings — those with higher scores get first pick, often leaving behind fewer and less lucrative batches for everyone else. Interviews with more than 10 shoppers and receipts reviewed by The Times show a sharp decline in earnings for shoppers whose ratings drop just slightly below 4.95 out of 5 stars. Often, shoppers said, the negative reviews were beyond workers’ control.

Even though Zahara has evidence those two complete orders reached the customers’ homes, it was enough to drop her rating to a 4.94. She went from earning an average of more than $1,270 per week to $690 per week, while working the same total hours, screenshots and weekly earnings reports show.

When Zahara had a rating of 4.95, compensation for batches of deliveries available to her ranged from $15 to $45. At a 4.94, screenshots show orders dipped to $9 to $22, with those at the higher end in a different county than where she lived and typically worked.

“I just had to live with the bad ratings and bad batches and no money,” she said.

Instacart says the system was developed to ensure ratings are “fair and accurate,” and do not unfairly penalize shoppers.

To protect shoppers, Instacart automatically forgives a customer’s single lowest rating, said Instacart spokesperson Natalia Montalvo. And “ratings that are outside of shoppers’ control” are also forgiven — such as when a customer complains that requested item is out of stock at a store, she said.

Read the complete article here.