Ryan Randazzo | Arizona Republic
(CNT) City News Talk #arizona
More than seven months into the pandemic that prompted hundreds of thousands of Arizonans to seek help from the state, the Department of Economic Security’s struggles to keep up with its workload continue.
The issues are familiar to many by now, but especially those who have applied for unemployment or “pandemic unemployment assistance,” a special program from Congress to pay weekly benefits to people out of work but who don’t qualify for traditional unemployment.
DES takes weeks to approve applications, can’t be reached by telephone, doesn’t respond to emails, sends conflicting instructions to applicants, cancels payments out of concerns for fraud, and continues to get hit with a deluge of fraudulent applications that the department sometimes pays.
“They might be doing their best but it’s just not good enough for those of us that were wrongly accused and have pretty much lost everything and the people who were protecting us are the ones that are hurting us the most,” said Mary Terry of Phoenix, who has tried for weeks to get what she says are her legitimate claims paid by DES.
DES officials said they are aware of many of the issues claimants are facing and that the department is working to get everyone their benefits.
As of last week, the department had about 2,700 regular unemployment claims that had waited more than three weeks to be paid.
“These claims have complex circumstances that must be evaluated in order to ensure proper benefit amounts are paid and avoid overpayments to the claimants,” DES spokesperson Brett Bezio said. “We are working urgently to get this backlog cleared as accurately and as quickly as possible.”
For the week of Oct. 31, DES added more than 70,000 new people to PUA and more than 2,700 to regular unemployment.
The number of new regular claims each week has slowed from the high in April, but about 395,000 Arizonans continue to receive weekly benefits, according to DES data.
Fewer than 100,000 of those are receiving traditional unemployment, which is down from about 200,000 in June.
But one reason the number of people receiving regular unemployment is decreasing is because many have exhausted their 26 weeks of eligibility. When that happens, if they still can’t find a job, they can apply for yet another type of benefit called Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Assistance, or PEUC, which can pay them an additional 13 weeks of benefits.
Nearly 40,000 Arizonans were receiving PEUC the week of Oct. 31, according to DES.
The agency also froze the bank accounts it set up to deposit funds for 43,000 applicants in late September, and at least 140 of those accounts were legitimate applicants, Bezio said.
“This low response rate of only 0.3%, supports the actions taken on suspected fraudulent claims,” Bezio said.
Big deposits rejected, not repaid
But some applicants continue to plead with the state that their legitimate claims are getting held up because of fraud concerns.
Terry held a variety of jobs before the pandemic, including working at an Arizona horse track.
She began collecting PUA after the pandemic put her out of work, but when she visited California to see her parents in July, her account with more than $6,000 was wiped out by DES.
Several applicants have told The Arizona Republic their accounts were closed when they filed a weekly claim from a computer in another state. Some were traveling while others relocated for work. DES confirmed that one of the ways it flags fraudulent accounts is out-of-state IP addresses on the devices used to access the DES website.
“You are allowed to leave the state,” said Terry, who has a 12-year-old child and another who is an adult. “I’m not a criminal.”
She had to move in with family in California for a time.
But she said the job market was worse in California so she borrowed money to pay rent in Phoenix so she could return to look for work. Now she says she’s borrowed from everyone she can in the family and continues to struggle as the pandemic endures.
For more than three months, she has not been able to get a straight answer from DES, she said. She said she recently was told by a representative that a new card would be issued to her.
“I don’t know what I’m doing wrong,” she said. “I’ve emailed everybody. I’ve called everybody. I’ve been on hold for days. I’ve called my senator.”
She said the inability to get a straight answer from DES is frustrating.
Money ‘floating in the wind somewhere’
Anthony Fresso and his wife, Jennifer Pallito, of Phoenix, applied for assistance months ago when the pandemic hit and his work as a rideshare driver dried up.
Pallito set up the claim for her husband. She said the DES website would not accept his checking account routing number, so she used her own Chime online banking account.
It took eight weeks before either of them got paid. She got her funds, but got a message from Chime that her husband’s lump payment of approximately $5,000 was rejected.
They opened a new Chime account for Fresso, where he began to get his weekly benefits. But the original payment for the first eight weeks of work he missed was never repaid.
“Apparently the money is missing,” she said, as DES officials have told them “they have no record of the money ever being returned.”
“It is floating in the wind somewhere,” Fresso said.
His benefits will expire around the holidays.
The couple has seen many other people with the same problem on social media, including a Facebook group for PUA recipients in Arizona.
DES says about 300,000 PUA accounts have had payments rejected by their banks, but most are thought to be fraudulent accounts.
“A banking institution may reject a payment for a variety of reasons, including incorrect banking information provided or suspected fraudulent activity,” Bezio said.
He said claimants who have this happen are given a chance to resolve the issue.
“The department will provide all eligible individuals with the benefits to which they were entitled including those payments which may have been rejected by banking institutions,” Bezio said.
Fraud harms legitimate claimants
DES has blamed many of its issues on rampant fraud in the PUA system.
The agency said it now been involved in 13 fraud investigations that have included arrests, three of them in Arizona and the rest out of state.
“With the majority of perpetrators residing out of state, investigations into these cases involve multiple sources of information, research and collaboration before an arrest can be made by federal or local law enforcement,” Bezio said.