A possible change on the UI fraud vendetta?

Mark Sommerhauser had an article this past Sunday for the Wisconsin State Journal about the push started by the prior administration for charging fraud against claimants for their non-intentional, claim-filing mistakes.

Not surprisingly, the former unemployment administrator, Joe Handrick, talked up how claimant fraud cases were, according to him, always legitimate.

Handrick said he fears those efforts could lose momentum under a provision of Evers’ plan for the next state budget, which calls for eliminating the one-week waiting period. Handrick said the waiting period was crucial in enabling state officials to catch fraudulent applications.

Handrick also rejects claims that some people prosecuted for fraud only made mistakes, saying the department long has distinguished between intentional and inadvertent omissions by claimants that lead to benefit over-payments.

“The things that get assigned as fraud are where the person clearly and intentionally attempts to defraud the people of the state of Wisconsin,” Handrick said. “Only the worst of the worst get referred to district attorneys for prosecution.”

There are two major problems with this statement.

First, the waiting week has absolutely nothing to do with alleged fraud investigations. The waiting week originally existed as a mechanism for delaying payment of unemployment benefits because of administrative difficulties in processing unemployment claims. Since the 1980s, however, that delay has no longer been needed, and now a waiting week’s only purpose is to reduce the unemployment benefits that are paid out. SeeAvoiding Waiting Weeks, “Unemployment Insurance Policy Advocate’s Toolkit” at 56-7.

This claim about waiting weeks is even more surprising in light of the Department’s obvious delays in investigating claim-filing mistakes. Indeed, the Department has gone out of its way to delay investigations and efforts into claim-filing mistakes so as to make the amounts at issue larger when the Department finally gets around to examining alleged mistakes. Furthermore, while other states have instituted practices that actually match claim-filing information with employer’s withholding tax reporting, Wisconsin has refused to implement such an obvious mechanism for catching claim-filing mistakes quickly. See my discussion of Massachusetts and New Mexico in Findings of the unemployment audit (17 Dec. 2014). The Commission as well has observed that the Department’s concealment efforts do NOT prevent improper payments from occurring in the first place and has noted that the Department’s concealment investigations often lead to exceptionally long and unwarranted delays in benefit payments.

Second, Mr. Handrick is ignoring the hundreds of cases in which the Department has alleged fraud for UNintentional claim-filing mistakes. There is a reason, after all, for why the Department wanted the Commission eliminated in the last budget cycle. SeeLIRC’s elimination (1 March 2017). In 2014, only 20% of the Department’s concealment charges that were appealed ended up being affirmed. This evidence indicates that only one out of every five of the Department’s concealment charges are actually based on intentional acts of claimants.

Note: recent cases that have come to my attention indicate that the Department’s appetite for alleging concealment has only increased over the years. SeeThoreson v. Thor’s Wolverine Den LLC, UI Hearing Nos. 18401886MD and 18401885MD (22 Mar. 2019) (claimant who helped brother tend bar for no pay does not have to repay any unemployment benefits and certainly not the $25,000 in alleged concealment charged by the Department because claimant did no work for brother).

In other words, there is a gigantic gap between Handrick’s statements about rampant unemployment fraud and the reality of folks being confused and making accidental mistakes when attempting to navigate a hostile and opaque claim-filing system. No one should be taking Handrick’s statement’s at face value. Luckily, the new Department secretary, Caleb Frostman, indicates in the State Journal article that he wants to make the unemployment claim-filing process friendlier to claimants. Here’s hoping he and the Department get to work on this goal. And soon.

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