$325,000 in jobless claims overpayments received locally

A Springfield News-Sun analysis of state and federal unemployment compensation data found nearly one in five claims filed by Clark County residents resulted in an overpayment in 2012, with fraud totalling just over $325,000.

Last year, out-of-work Ohioans collected nearly $2.3 billion in state and federal unemployment compensation. There were overpayments on more than 110,000 claims totalling $87.3 million, according to state data. One individual may have had multiple claims.

Just less than half of the overpayments — about $43 million — has been recovered.

“The debts are never forgiven. We are always going to be trying to collect them,” Bruce Madson, assistant director of the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services said.

Clark County had overpayments on 917 claims out of 4,988, with $325,699 paid out to claimants that involved fraud.

Unemployment, unlike other Job and Family Services programs, is a state operation with no county involvement, but Madson could not say why some counties had a higher percentage of claims with overpayments than others.

He did say the overpayment problem, overall, began during the recession when the state agency rushed to deliver benefits timely to tens of thousands of Ohioans who were out of work.

“Not only were we slammed with people applying for benefits, but employers were slammed with (work verification) documentation,” Madson said. “If an employer didn’t get back timely, we made the determination with information we had. We were more likely to make improper payments.”

And, the overpayment issue isn’t unique to Ohio.

The U.S. Department of Labor’s Benefit Accuracy Measurement (BAM) looks at a sample of unemployment claims in each state — fewer than 500 — and extrapolates the findings to estimate the total number of inaccurate payments. Ohio ranked in the top tier of the county with 15 other states in that report with improper payment rates estimated at 14 percent or above, for the three-year period between July 2009 and June 30, 2012.

Ohio officials disagree with the ranking.

“While we know that we do not identify every overpayment, we believe the BAM extrapolation is too high,” Ben Johnson, spokesman for ODJFS said.

The extent of Ohio’s overpayments became evident when recession-era data became available. With more than $5 billion in benefits disbursed, overpayments statewide totalled $141 million in 2010, more than 2.5 times the 2008 figure.

The Ohio Attorney General’s Office collects outstanding debts owed to state agencies. When fraudulently obtained benefits are recovered, they are deposited back into the Unemployment Compensation Trust Fund.

Many overpayments are the result of honest mistakes, Johnson said. Even if unemployment benefits are disbursed in error, overpayments must be paid back.

“In difficult economic times there is more temptation for individuals really in desperation to take benefits they many not be eligible to receive,” Madson said. “We don’t want to drive people into bankruptcy. Unemployment is about sustaining families. We may not be able to collect until the next time a person applies for benefits.”

Now, as Ohio’s economy recovers, Madson said the emphasis at ODJFS has shifted to reduce overpayments.

“We’re taking steps to tighten the system,” Madson said.

  • ODJFS is working with the General Assembly to increase the 15 percent penalty claimants pay in fraud cases.
  • And, the unemployment tax rate of a business could be impacted, if the company habitually does not return documents to the state in a timely manner that results in an overpayment.
  • The names of all new claimants are being cross checked with the National New Hire Database.

The state also has applied to the Internal Revenue Service to crack down on Ohioans who obtain benefits fraudulently by withholding federal income tax refunds to those who fail to return an overpayment. That policy could be in place by March, Madson said.

Looking for work is a requirement to receive unemployment benefits. Self-reported, job search information provided by claimants also is being audited more often.

“If a person has been on unemployment for a long time and their job search has been fruitless, after months they may say they are doing something they are not,” Madson said. “They will actually have to produce written documentation that we can cross check.”

A goal of ODJFS is to reduce the number of weeks claimants receive benefits because they got jobs.

Ohio House Bill 2 would require all applicants for unemployment insurance to register with OhioMeansJobs.com prior to applying for benefits. A resume could be submitted to a searchable database and when the state learns of a job that matches a person’s skills, they would be notified.

The legislation also requires claimants to go to their county job center by the eighth week of unemployment benefits. Currently, only individuals receiving federally extended unemployment benefits must visit a job center. These requirements aim to make sure applicants and recipients are maximizing job search opportunities.

“We want to minimize the weeks people are unemployed,” Madson said. “There are a significant number of people who are only on unemployment a few weeks. Another group is more likely to take it all the way through to 26.”

Fraud was a factor in 17,740 of the Ohio claims totalling $30.5 million. The state also is getting aggressive in prosecuting individuals who got benefits they weren’t entitled to receive, Madson said.

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