Fraud concerns delay thousands of jobless claims

by BRET ANNE SERBIN
Daily Inter Lake | October 6, 2020 7:00 AM

Thousands of Montanans are waiting to receive emergency government assistance as the Montana Department of Labor and Industry grapples with an onslaught of fraud attempts on the state’s Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) program.

In April, PUA payments first started going out to Montanans who have lost income due to the COVID-19 pandemic but were not eligible for traditional unemployment insurance, such as gig workers and independent contractors. But the newly established program recently has been targeted by fraudsters, forcing

the Department of Labor to implement additional security measures that have tied up the funds for thousands of PUA claimants.

According to Lauren Lewis, the Department of Labor public information officer, there are currently about 14,000 PUA claims with “one or more outstanding issues to be resolved.”

One of those claims came from Marti Kurth, a Whitefish gig worker who provides public relations and marketing services to nonprofit arts organizations along with her husband, Rich. The Kurths have been waiting on their weekly $184 payments from the state since Aug. 1.

“There’s really been no work for us at all,” Marti said. “I’m just hoping that the $184 is going to come. We were counting on it to get us through the fall, figuring that by winter we’d be able to find some more client business somewhere.”

The Kurths were receiving a weekly payout until July 25. Since then, their online claim has been marked with a notice that reads, “file under review” and “pending,” and it’s been 10 weeks since they received any funds.

They’ve stayed afloat thanks to Social Security payments—both Marti and Rich are in retirement, although they’ve been running their independent PR and marketing business since 2003. They also received two loans from the Small Business Administration and they managed to save most of the $600 federal unemployment payments they received through July.

“We’re fortunate we’re at the age where we have Social Security,” Marti said, even though the funding shortfall and ongoing uncertainty have caused the couple significant financial hardship. “I hope other people are able to hang in there,” she added.

IN ADDITION to the obvious issues caused by 10 weeks without a steady income stream, Marti said a large part of the problem has been

the lack of transparency about what’s going on with her payments at the labor department.

“I don’t think they’ve been transparent at all about it,” she maintained, after trying in vain for days to get in contact with someone who could explain why her payments were under review. Marti is still waiting on an explanation as to why her claim, which hasn’t changed from the one she submitted earlier, has now been placed under review.

She’d also like to know when she can expect her payments to start up again, or whether there will even be money available for her by the time the state gets to her place in the lengthy queue of claims. Even though she and her husband have both made multiple calls, Marti said they haven’t found anyone yet who can answer their questions.

“I sure haven’t had much response,” she lamented. Lauren Lewis with the Department of Labor explained claims like Marti’s are undergoing an elongated verification process to protect Montanans from fraud. “As the program provides benefits to an expanded population that has not typically been eligible for unemployment, it has been a target for UI fraud resulting from a national unemployment fraud scheme that uses stolen personal information from external sources,” Lewis wrote in an email.

“It is important to note that these are not claim delays, but instead eligibility

processes that claimants must follow to receive benefits,” Lewis said about the review process that has halted payments like the Kurths’. “If a claimant has had their benefits stop, there is an eligibility reason for that to occur.”

According to state data, the Kurths certainly aren’t alone. “To date, 65,315 claimants have established a PUA claim, including 1,660 new in the benefit week ending Sept. 26,” Lewis reported. Staff clears an average of about 400 to 600 claim issues every day, and between June 1 and Aug. 31, the department reportedly stopped just under $189 million in fraudulent payments.

“Each UI claim is unique to each individual. Sometimes, this process can take time and is specific to each claim,” Lewis explained.

“DLI encourages Montanans to closely monitor their accounts to ensure they have provided all needed eligibility information on their claim and all provided information is up-to-date,” she added.