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L&I reveals fraud numbers

Consultant says 88% of 400K PUA program claims apparently were fraudulent

For months, the Pennsylvania Department of Labor & Industry — and its counterparts around the country — have struggled against fraud in the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program.

On Monday, state Labor Secretary Jerry Oleksiak provided information that showed how extensive that fraud has been: 88 percent of 400,000 applications handled by a consultant hired in October to verify identities were apparently fraudulent.

That percentage is probably not nearly as high for claims filed prior to a 20,000 one-day application surge in mid-September that triggered the hiring of ID.me, the consultant, Oleksiak said.

The fraud percentage estimate for the recent applications comes from ID.me’s finding that only about 12 percent of those invited to verify their identities responded, according to Oleksiak.

At first, ID.me was only checking out new PUA applicants, L&I officials said previously.

Now it is investigating some claims — about one-third have been flagged — initiated prior to being hired, Oleksiak indicated.

“We will work to hold people accountable,” he said.

One indication that a smaller percentage of those older applications were fraudulent is simply that they occurred before the application surge in September, Oleksiak said.

The department, however, has been aware of fraudulent applications since at least June, at which time it began working with various agencies to eliminate it, according to Oleksiak.

Indications of fraud, apart from a failure to participate in identity verification, have included submission of multiple applications from the same address, Oleksiak indicated.

While PUA, which provides benefits to the self-employed, has been plagued by fraud, its scheduled end for the week of Dec. 26 will plague the legitimate recipients who will continue to need it, according to Oleksiak.

The same is true of the Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation program, which provides extended benefits for those whose regular unemployment has run out, and which will also end that same week, according to Oleksiak.

Both are programs authorized by the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act.

“Many of us are reaching out and hoping Congress will extend (those programs),” said Oleksiak, who is retiring Friday. “We’re continuing to advocate.”

There are no replacement programs in the offing, he said.

The loss will be “devastating” not only to many who need the funds — especially PUA recipients, who aren’t eligible for regular unemployment — but also to the Pennsylvania economy, Oleksiak said.

While the department is advocating for an extension of PUA, it’s also seeking the return of overpayments to PUA recipients based on possibly honest misunderstandings that led to improper self-certifications, according to Susan Dickinson, director of unemployment compensation benefits policy.

“To qualify for PUA benefits, you must not be eligible for regular unemployment benefits and be unemployed, partially unemployed, or unable or unavailable to work because of certain health or economic consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic,” according to a U.S. Department of Labor web page.

Applicants aren’t eligible simply because COVID-19 may have made it hard to find work, Dickinson said.

The department has identified 11,000 individuals who’ve received such overpayments, she said.

Those can repay in a lump sum or through reduction of future benefits, she said.

There have been about 2.2 million PUA claims, Dickinson said.

Mirror Staff Writer William Kibler is at 949-7038.

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