Arizona has begun mailing checks to about 3,800 people who had their unemployment insurance bank accounts wiped out in an anti-fraud sweep, but who later were determined to be legitimate claimants.
The Department of Economic Security closed 28,000 Bank of America accounts worth $70 million around July 11.
The accounts are where DES would deposit unemployment insurance that claimants can access with a debit card. Some applicants choose to have the money direct deposited into their existing accounts but many simply rely on the accounts set up by DES for their funds.
DES said the accounts were all suspected of fraud, and most of them turned out to be improper claims, but some were not.
People with legitimate unemployment claims who worked and qualified for benefits in Arizona, but moved out of state, which is allowed, had their accounts closed.
This caused myriad problems for people who left Arizona to move in with family, or to get medical treatments or search for work. Some had several thousand dollars saved in the accounts.
Many were saving the money in their accounts because the $600 federal supplement to unemployment benefits ended last week, meaning people who are out of work this week and later will only get the state benefits without that $600 supplement. That is unless Congress reaches a deal to extend the extra funding.
People with legitimate claims who had their accounts wiped out were asked to email a picture of themselves holding a state-issued identification and their claimant ID number to [email protected] to get their money back.
DES spokesman Brett Bezio said Thursday that 3,767 people whose accounts were closed were determined as actually eligible and were mailed checks.
Emails received by some applicants Friday indicate they were mailed a check that should arrive within three days, and that DES will set up a new Bank of America account for them if they have not already done so.
“Whenever additional fraud detection and prevention measures are put into place, there will be law-abiding citizens that may be impacted by these measures,” the email from DES said. “We appreciate your patience and cooperation while we address these issues and apologize for any inconvenience you have experienced.”
Confusion over application change
Meanwhile, other issues with unemployment benefits in Arizona remain unresolved. The number of people filing claims for benefits has skyrocketed to record levels during the coronavirus pandemic.
Little more than a week ago, people reported changes on the application for weekly benefits called “pandemic unemployment assistance,” which pays people who are self-employed, have little work history or otherwise are out of a job but don’t qualify for regular unemployment.
Applicants reported that the application had fewer reasons to justify applying for benefits, making it impossible for them to continue applying for assistance.
For example, previously, people could indicate they were unable to work because a doctor told them to self quarantine, and that option was eliminated.
Bezio said DES didn’t make the changes. He declined to explain exactly which questions and answers were altered.
“The Department is aware of system changes that have impacted the questions and responses available within the PUA weekly certifications portal,” he said. “We are working quickly with our vendor to resolve this issue. This has not prevented claimants from filing weekly certifications, and we have received over 350,000 continued claims this week already.”
Late Friday, DES posted about the application changes on Twitter, telling people it was being fixed.
“Some of the options normally listed in the PUA portal as reasons for unemployment are unavailable,” the DES statement said. “If the reason you normally select to self-certify your weekly claim is missing, please select ‘A reason not listed above’ and insert your reason for unemployment.”
Some applicants have not filed their weekly claims because of the changes to the questions.
If applicants don’t file a claim for a week, they won’t collect benefits for that week.
‘It’s getting scary’
One of those people is Brenda Foote, who lives in Glendale.
“Bills are piling up and it’s getting scary,” Foote said.
She worked in retail before the pandemic and her store closed along with many other shops because of the pandemic. She’s not returned to work since because her doctor advised her not to because she is older than 60 at high risk of complications if she catches COVID-19, she said.
When she applied for PUA in May, the application said she was eligible, but she has yet to be paid, she said.
Now for the past week, she has not filed a claim because of the application changes.
Foote was unaware of the changes because, like many people trying to access benefits through DES, she doesn’t follow the agency on Twitter.
And of course, many applicants continue to wait for payments or for issues with their applications to be resolved.
Artist Lori Higgins, 50, of Dewey, was paid PUA benefits previously but hasn’t gotten any funds for the past two months and counting.
She sells her art in galleries in Hawaii, which are all closed, and where she is prohibited from traveling without quarantining herself for 14 days when she gets there.
“I’m just frustrated because I can’t get through to anybody,” she said Friday. “I’ve been filing my weekly claims and they haven’t paid anything out. It just says ‘status in progress’ (online at her account). The most frustrating part is that you can call any number you want, I’ve spent hours doing this.”
And the work for DES continues to pile up.
New applications for unemployment insurance last week held steady, with 23,000 new applications, and about 260,000 people receiving regular unemployment. Hundreds of thousands more applied for PUA.
Since the coronavirus pandemic began, DES has received 1.1 million applications for regular unemployment and PUA.
Reach reporter Ryan Randazzo at [email protected] or 602-444-4331. Follow him on Twitter @UtilityReporter.
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