California state lawmakers held a hearing Monday with officials from the Employment Development Department (EDD), covering the agency's massive fraud problem in 2020, as well as the general dysfunction and bureaucracy that delayed needed payments for scores of eligible Californians.
While one estimate earlier this year pegged the possible scope of fraudulent EDD payments around $31 billion, officials now say the number was far lower, but still quite high at around $20 billion.
California was not alone in dealing with widespread fraud, as millions of phony unemployment claims were made across multiple states following Congress's authorization of payments for people who were self-employed and in non-traditional employment situations during the pandemic. As the Associated Press reports, it's believed that one-third of unemployment benefits paid out in Arizona were fraudulent, and the fraud total nationwide is estimated at $87 billion.
But nearly one fourth of that fraud happened in California, and it happened under the watch of the EDD, which hasn't been known for its quick or efficient service even in a normal, non-pandemic year.
"I don't think people have captured in their mind the enormity of the amount of money has been issued errantly to undeserving people," said Assemblyman Tom Lackey (R-Palmdale) during a bit of political theater Monday in which he displayed an illustration of 29 dump trucks full of $100 bills.
Since the start of the pandemic, the California EDD has fielded 25.5 million unemployment claims, paying out more than $178 billion in benefits. We now know that included $810 million to ineligible fraudsters who were in prison, or filing on behalf of a prison inmate. But that means that the overwhelming majority of the fraud, about $19 billion, was being perpetrated outside of prisons — even though the prison-inmate segment of the fraud was the first to be publicized last November, and has been the most written-about in the media.
The state can't possibly prosecute all the fraud, but some cases have been made examples of — like this trio, which included on SoCal prison inmate and one Bay Area man, who are charged with scamming the state out of $2 million in fraudulent payments.
There was also the Sacramento-area woman we learned about in December who was, hilariously, collecting money in the name of Dianne Feinstein.
Also, with 25.5 million claims made, that means that two-thirds of the state's population of 39.5 million filed claims?? And only one-third of the state was either employed or decided not to commit fraud last year?
EDD Director Rita Saenz testified Monday that the department now has new identity verification software to prevent fraud — they didn't have this already?! — and it has so far stopped $120 million in new fraudulent claims.
Saenz called last year "an anomaly," and "a criminal assault on the unemployment insurance program across the country." And she assured lawmakers that the department had "closed the door to that type of fraud" many months ago.
And for everyone who was legitimately unemployed and struggling, but whose claims somehow flagged something in the system that the EDD did have in place, this story has to be all the more infuriating. People bilked the state out of millions, while they were told to wait six months for an interview to resolve their claim to $450 or $600 a week.
Saenz called these delays "unacceptable," but lawmakers took the opportunity Monday to let Saenz know that this was a disaster that won't be recovered from quickly.
"When one of our government agencies fails this badly, I believe that it breaks the public trust," said Assemblywoman Cottie Petrie-Norris (D-Laguna Beach), per the AP.
The EDD was audited by the state, and a report on the audit blasted the agency for its inaction and ineptitude as evidence of fraud became apparent last year.
The department says it is in the process of transitioning to a direct-deposit system, which will supposedly help prevent fraud — with the current debit-card system more prone to fraud — but this new system will apparently take several years to be implemented, because of course that's how quickly government bureaucracies work.