unemployment benefits

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Louisiana has paid roughly $6.2 million in improper unemployment benefits to nearly 1,200 people locked up in jails or prisons, the state Legislative Auditor's Office says in a report released Monday.

The state labor department didn't dispute the findings and said it was working to correct the problems. It said criminal enterprises have targeted the state's unemployment insurance program to take advantage of increased payouts during the coronavirus pandemic.

The report noted two possible factors contributing to the improper payments, which amount to a tiny fraction of more than $8 billion in unemployment benefits paid during the pandemic. The report noted that the labor department failed to correctly match its data on unemployment benefits with information a vendor provides on inmates.

Also, the report said that more than 80% of the incarcerated recipients got the money through a program for contractors and gig workers that was created as part of a 2020 coronavirus relief bill. That complicates the job of the labor department, known as the Louisiana Workforce Commission, because it doesn’t have electronic wage data on gig and contract workers.

Instead, the department "must rely upon the amount of income reported by the applicant,” the report said.

The report on payments to the incarcerated comes a month after legislative auditors found that the labor department sent more than $405 million in state and federal unemployment insurance benefits to more than 97,500 people during the pandemic who weren't eligible. It was not immediately clear if the money paid to incarcerated people was included in that amount or is in addition to it.

The labor department didn't dispute the findings of either report and said actions are being take to correct the problems. In a news release, the department said “sophisticated criminal enterprises” have targeted the unemployment program, "attempting to take advantage of agencies ... already overwhelmed with the sheer volume of claims over the last 14 months.”

The statement said the department is working with its vendor, a company called Apriss, which provides data on incarcerated people, to find out what caused the problems. It added that overpayments found in legislative audits amount to .07% of the $8.6 billion in state and federal unemployment benefits paid out so far during the pandemic.

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