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Labor Department’s resistance to political pressure helped deter fraud, secretary says

A congressional joint audit and review committee met Tuesday to discuss work at the Maryland Department of Labor. screenshot.

When thousands of Marylanders lost their jobs at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, the state Labor Department found itself under siege as it tried to process a flood of unemployment insurance claims that appeared to have occurred overnight. I was.

Agency employees and their benefits systems struggled. In particular, it was because department personnel suddenly found themselves working from home. They also found themselves having to deal with gradual changes in federal eligibility guidelines. Each change required software updates and staff training, as well as an onslaught of fraudulent claims from around the world.

States paid out billions of dollars in benefits, but many people waited weeks or even months for the money to arrive. The delay has sparked criticism from the public, state legislators, and a Maryland legislative delegation.

At Tuesday’s legislative hearing, Labor Secretary Tiffany Robinson strongly defended her agency and its contractors. The decision said it saved the state billions of dollars.

“Undoubtedly the easier and more politically expedient way would have been to pay everyone, as many have demanded of me.” But we chose a different route. It was about helping honest and legitimate claimants as quickly as humanly possible while fighting and exposing what actually turned out to be the greatest theft in American history.”

Maryland processed 136,000 benefit claims in fiscal 2019. That number surged to 1.5 million in 2021 and 1.9 million in 2022 as companies cut workers in response to the slowdown in economic activity.

Agency representatives and the company behind Maryland-based billing platform BEACON worked nights and weekends to update and expand the system and handle individual billing disputes, but the new Lost jobs, Marylanders struggled to meet rent and mortgage obligations and support their families.

By late spring 2020, state legislators were inundated with calls from voters. Many of them are people who claim to be at risk of homelessness. Lawmakers called his nine-hour hearing that spring, and nearly 200 people shared their stories in tears.

Unemployed workers said they spent all day on the phone trying to reach a claims expert. Others said they encountered continuous “error” messages on the agency’s benefits portal, a clunky app, and did not receive the promised letter.

Shortly after the hearing, some lawmakers called on Mr. Robinson to follow Vermont’s precedent, while several other states that prioritized quick payouts and clawbacks of funds distributed to the people were ineligible. A year later, there was a call to replace the secretary.

But Robinson said on Tuesday that a subsequent investigation by a national news agency found the Hogan administration aggressively combating “the staggering extent to which our federal unemployment insurance system has been attacked and looted by sophisticated cybercriminals.” He said the decision was right.

She told lawmakers that international “scammers” continue to attack the state’s unemployment insurance system, hoping to profit. she said.

Robinson said that willingness to yield to “huge political pressure to pay everyone” saved the state “tens of billions of dollars” in fraudulent claims.

But in an interview, Senator Clarence Lamb (D-Howard), the Senate chairman of the Joint Audit and Review Committee, said her claims were exaggerated.

“Honestly, I think it’s a bit of an exaggeration,” he said. “I don’t think it will be tens of billions of dollars.”

Lamb said the pressures Maryland experienced were no different from those faced by other states. “Did it [other states] Waste tens of billions of dollars? suspicious,” he said. “Of course there was fraud, and it was serious, but I think they overemphasized it to hide their shortcomings.”

For example, some relatively “common-sense” early steps, such as rejecting claims submitted using foreign IP addresses or claims from prisoners, allowed many to steal systems. It is possible that the attempt could have been resolved.

Robinson reiterated on Tuesday that the pandemic has affected her agency’s ability to update its outdated billing system. also before.

The director of the Legislative Audit Office told a panel on Tuesday that a review of some of the Labor Department’s unemployment insurance claims processes resulted in an “unsatisfactory” rating, prompting additional audits in the coming months. said.

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