Unemployment benefits have been a lifeline for more than 3 million Georgians during the pandemic. Thousands have had trouble collecting money to which they are entitled.
But a Channel 2 Action News investigation found that tens of thousands of others are trying to game the system.
Channel 2 investigative reporter Justin Gray found that some are getting through, stealing money and slowing down valid claims in the process.
Wande Okunoren-Meadows, the owner of Little Ones Learning Center in Clayton County, was notified that the Georgia Department of Labor was paying new unemployment benefits on her account for a former employee that she said she had not seen in more than a year.
“She hadn’t worked for us in over a year and half, and she quit. I sent DOL the resignation letter in her own writing, sent all of that. Was still able to get those benefits,” she said.
Okunoren-Meadows told Channel 2 Action News that she had reached out to the Department of Labor several times to appeal the claim but was unsuccessful for a long time.
“Many emails,” she said. “There’s nothing we can do.”
Sharon Foster runs Bells Ferry Learning Center, a day care in Cherokee County. She told Channel 2 Action News that she did not recognize the name of the person filing for unemployment.
Foster later found out it was a woman she had hired in the fall who didn't show up for work.
“She no-call, no-showed, so she never actually worked a day for us,” Foster said. “Then when COVID hit. She filed for unemployment and was awarded it against our account.”
Both business owners work in the same industry, but Georgia Labor Commissioner Mark Butler admitted to Gray that the problem runs statewide and across all types of businesses.
“It makes me quite angry,” he said.
Butler said that the Department of Labor noticed a surge in false claims last month.
“If you take a look at the month of July, we saw over 130,000 claims being filed that showed no work history for 18 months,” he said.
But some claims from people who are not entitled to unemployment are getting through.
As the department tries to process record numbers of claims, state officials recognize that they are not catching every improper claim right away.
“It makes it feel like it’s just a free-for-all,” said Foster. “Just anybody and everybody can go file and get what they want right now. And that’s upsetting because there are so many people who legitimately deserve it and need it.”
Butler said there are many reasons behind false claims. He pointed out that some people may not understand how the system works, and others may want a shot at free money.
He also said that the department also has evidence of organized crime, pointing to data breaches in recent years.
Butler told Channel 2 Action News that the department is seeing large numbers of attempts at collecting unemployment payments using other people’s stolen personal information.
“If you have falsified information on your application, to the point where you got a considerable amount of money, you could get yourself in some serious legal trouble,” he warned. “This is no game.”
In the last 19 weeks, the department rejected more than 135,000 claims for showing no employment history for 18 months.
Another 20,000 claims were found ineligible after a department review.
And 38,000 claims remain on hold as the department's staff investigate their cases.
“We do catch it,” said Butler. “In this case, it might take us a little while to catch it.”
The risk for the employers listed on improper claims is an increased cost for unemployment insurance when they can least afford it.
“If DOL awards benefits, and we didn’t file it for them, then it does count against us, so that is my concern,” said Okunoren-Meadows.
“The more claims that are filed against an employer, the higher their premiums go on their taxes,” Butler said.
Butler told Channel 2 Actions News that employers should file an appeal if a claim seems improper but admitted that the appeals process is delayed and overwhelmed right now.
He also confirmed that false claims slow down the processing of valid unemployment claims.
“What slows down everything are the ones that are the ones that either it can be somebody trying to attempt fraud, or it can be somebody just trying to just roll the dice, see if they can get unemployment,” Butler said.
“I just trust that it’s going to all come out OK in the end — once the DOL has the chance to catch up, catch their breath and really dig into vetting claims again,” Foster said.
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