Perhaps it should come as a relief to Idahoans that our state had the Pacific Northwest’s lowest percentage of errors in the payment of unemployment benefits over the past three years.
More than 9% of payments in Idaho were paid erroneously, while Washington had a 14.1% error rate, Oregon had a 12.2% error rate and Alaska — under the crack leadership of former governor Sarah Palin — had an 11.8% error rate.
But when that 9% translates into $82 million paid to residents who had either already returned to work or had not met the state’s job search requirements, that relief should be somewhat tempered. A disappointing (but not very surprising) statement from Idaho Department of Labor spokesman Bob Fick said “people in our compliance bureau question whether those numbers accurately reflect the error rate that actually occurs.” In other words, ‘we don’t like the numbers, so they must be wrong.’
Fick did point out that nearly $22.6 million in improperly paid unemployment benefits have been recovered by the state over the past five years. This may sound noble from a state budget management perspective, but let’s take a minute to view it from the perspective of the thousands of unemployed workers who had originally received the money. Those that received the $22.6 million were unemployed at some point — many if not most for a period extending beyond the initial maximum payout of 26 weeks. At some point these workers find employment and begin to see the light at the end of the tunnel. During their transition to work — a seemingly euphoric experience in which they begin to feel better about themselves and their ability to provide for their family — they mistakenly get paid a few extra weeks of unemployment benefits. Some may know it’s happened; we suspect the majority do not.
And then they receive the “recovery” notice in the mail, telling them how much they need to repay and how soon they need to find the money. So much for euphoria.
Does this mean the state should not try to recover unemployment benefits erroneously paid? Certainly not.
What it does mean is that the state Department of Labor can and must do a better job in monitoring eligibility and paying only those still unemployed that provide accurate documentation of their job search. Since Idaho’s Department of Labor is among many departments and agencies that have had their budget decreased over the past several years, such painstaking attention to detail is more difficult. It is nonetheless necessary.
And if budget “cuts” to the Department of Labor help cause an overpayment of $82 million, it’s clear that not all intended budget savings really pan out. Some budget “cuts” actually cost us more.