Surprise shut off: Unemployed workers discover benefits are frozen until state can re-verify IDs

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Posted at 6:00 AM, Apr 20, 2021
and last updated 2021-04-20 07:09:40-04

BALTIMORE — Jobless workers are discovering their unemployment insurance benefits have been cut off due to suspected fraud. And it can take weeks for the department to re-verify claims.

Shawn Bondroff was at the gas pump when his unemployment insurance debit card was declined.

“I was on my way to a job interview and I went to get gas, put my card in, it didn't work. I'm like that's kind of weird,” said Bondroff.

After calling the Department of Labor, he learned he needed to submit identity verification documents.

“And they said oh, they're doing something new called proof of ID where they want all the claimants because there's so much fraud going on, I guess, to submit either driver's license, Social Security card, passport, things of that nature and I'm like okay, great. I go ahead and do that,” said Bondroff.

That was on March 27. Weeks later, nothing had changed.

“I pretty much called every day getting nowhere, nowhere at all. No one's looked at it, no one's reviewed it, they don't know when they're going to do it, which is upsetting,” Bondroff said.

Robinn Brown waited 26 weeks for her benefits. She started receiving them three weeks ago, then the same thing happened.

“Did they give you any kind of advance warning before they froze your benefits?” asked WMAR-2 News Mallory Sofastaii.
“No, I was actually trying to use the card when it kept declining,” said Brown.

Brown had worked at a nonprofit for 21 years when she lost her job in September.

“With all the stuff that they checked during the 26-week period, I can't imagine how three weeks after that they don't know who I am. It's just not making any sense to me,” said Brown. “It's very, very frustrating. I don't know another word to use and it's really putting me in a bad spot, I have bills to pay.”

The Department of Labor was unable to say how many claimants are waiting for review of their documents, however, WMAR-2 News has heard from dozens in the last several months.

In February, Maryland Secretary of Labor Tiffany Robinson told Sofastaii that the department is working to hire a new vendor to assist with the verification process.

“I would say in the coming weeks,” she told Sofastaii on February 23.

A department spokesperson confirmed on Monday that the contract hadn’t been signed yet, but the deal was close to being finalized.

Sofastaii asked the department why it didn't wait to freeze accounts until the new vendor was in place. A spokesperson wrote:

"It is important to note that of the 776,927 in-state and out-of-state claims flagged for fraud as of April 13, 684,371 (88.09%) have been confirmed as being fraudulent. ... These numbers show that the department could not have waited until the contract was signed to begin its critical and ongoing fraud prevention and detection efforts."

She also wrote that the department does not to give claimants advance notice that their account has been flagged as potentially fraudulent.

"If the department provided advance notice to these potentially fraudulent claimants and did not freeze their debit cards, fraudsters would be tipped off."

Last week, the U.S. Department of Labor (USDOL) issued guidance that contradicts the department's stance.

According to the letter to all state labor departments, "the state’s first step after a question of ID arises is to notify the individual of the issue and that ID verification is required."

And while states can pause payments they've identified as potentially fraudulent, determination needs to be timely.

The guidance states that a determination must be made no later than the end of the week following the week in which the issue is detected. And if it's not, the state must continue to pay the claim then issue a determination as administratively feasible after payment is made.

The department said they've expressed serious concerns to USDOL about several of the provisions, and they will not be implementing the new guidance until they receive additional guidance and clarification.

The department's spokeswoman added that Bondroff's claim was held up because he sent scanned documents when they asked for photos. And Brown only uploaded her Social Security card which was illegible.

Both claimants said once you submit your documents you can't resubmit, and none of this information was relayed to them until after WMAR-2 News sent the department their information.

The department stressed they require a photo of an official original copy of a document rather than a scan because scanned documents can be easily photoshopped.