CA lawmakers propose slate of reforms for troubled unemployment agency

From today’s Los Angeles Times:

After a pair of scathing audits confirmed California’s troubled unemployment agency has been plagued by years of mismanagement, state lawmakers on Thursday announced a raft of new bills to speed up the payment of jobless benefits and reduce fraud.

The package of bills proposed by nine Assembly members is aimed at forcing change at the state Employment Development Department, which was criticized by the state auditor last week for delays in providing unemployment benefits despite having been warned of problems in the system a decade ago.

The proposals would allow benefits to be provided by direct deposit rather than issued with debit cards sent through the mail, would require the agency to check claimants against lists of prison inmates to prevent fraud and would establish an Office of the Claimant Advocate to help people with claim problems.

“Many of the issues EDD is facing today have been known since the Great Recession,” said Assemblyman David Chiu (D-San Francisco). “Almost nothing was done to fix the problems or plan for another economic downturn.”

The EDD has been slow to respond to an unprecedented flood of unemployment benefit applications that resulted from the state shutting down much of the economy to stop the COVID-19 pandemic that began nearly a year ago.

Lawmakers said during a video news conference Thursday that many residents with legitimate unemployment claims have been harmed by an EDD decision to suspend 1.4 million claims in December to make sure they are not fraudulent.

Bay Area resident Laurel Carter joined the lawmakers’ event, saying her legitimate claim was suspended in mid-December with “no other explanation given.” She had difficulty uploading documents to prove her identity and was told she would have a five-hour wait to talk to a representative for help.

“I slept with my computer on for eight days just thinking that maybe in the middle of the night I would hear a ding and it would be someone that would speak to me,” Carter said. “I am now six weeks in without any payment.”

Though EDD Director Rita Saenz told lawmakers on Wednesday that she is committed to implementing improvements to the agency recommended by the state auditor and a strike team of government experts appointed last year by Gov. Gavin Newsom, skeptical lawmakers in both parties have introduced 20 bills in recent weeks in an attempt to more quickly address problems. They include legislation by Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez (D-San Diego) that would provide claimants with theoption to receive their unemployment benefits via direct deposit to their bank accounts.

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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.