Nearly $19 billion in state unemployment benefits were paid in error during the three years that ended in June, new Labor Department data show.
The amount represents more than 10% of the $180 billion in jobless benefits paid nationwide during the period. (See a map of improper payments by state.) The tally covers state programs, which offer benefits for up to 26 weeks, from July 2008 to June 2011. Layers of federal programs that help provide benefits for up to 99 weeks weren't included.
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The figures were released Wednesday as the Obama administration promotes its bid to reduce waste at federal agencies. The federal government foots the bill for administering the programs, and states are supposed to pay for the benefits. Many states exhausted their unemployment insurance trust funds during the long recession and slow recovery, prompting them to borrow from the federal government to replenish their funds.
Improper payments most often occur when recipients claim benefits even though they have returned to work; employers or their administrators don't submit timely or accurate information about worker separations; or recipients don't correctly register with a state's employment-service organization.
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The Labor Department launched a plan to crack down on the improper payments, targeting Virginia, Indiana, Colorado, Washington, Louisiana and Arizona in particular for their high error rates. Those states will undergo additional monitoring and technical assistance until their error rates dip below 10% and remain there for at least six months, according to the Labor Department.
"The Unemployment Insurance system is a unique partnership between the federal government and the states. States bear the responsibility of operating an efficient and effective benefits program, but as partners the federal government must be able to hold them accountable for doing so," Labor Secretary Hilda Solis said in a release.
Indiana had the highest error rate, with improper payments accounting for more than 43% of the total amount paid. But Mark Everson, commissioner of the Indiana Department of Workforce Development, said the differences in error rates stem from variations in state programs.
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"To characterize it as waste, fraud and abuse is just manipulative," Mr. Everson said. "There's no way in the world you could cut the 43% of people off."
Mr. Everson pointed out that in Indiana, benefit recipients are required to list three work searches. If a recipient fills out only two of the three searches correctly, there are cases when the recipient can still receive benefits. But that counts as an error.
The Labor Department noted, "it may be misleading to compare one state's payment accuracy rates with another state's rates… States with stringent or complex provisions tend to have higher improper payment rates than those with simpler, more straightforward provisions."
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