Meadville Tribune

State News

February 21, 2013

State out to stop unemployment payments to county jail inmates

Program has already stopped $18 million in payments

HARRISBURG — A new state effort to prevent county inmates from collecting unemployment has already saved Pennsylvania an estimated $18 million in improper payments, a Labor Department spokeswoman said.

But state officials, failing to recognize or care about the scope of the problem, were slow to act to address unemployment fraud by county prisoners even though the Labor Department has been working with the state prison system for 15 years to stymie jailbirds trying to collect unemployment.

The Pennsylvania Justice Network approached the Labor Department during the Rendell Administration about developing a similar program to target county prisoners, but the suggestion was originally ignored, said Sara Goulet, press secretary in the Labor Department. The Justice Network, called “JNET” is a secure portal used by police and others in the courts and law enforcement to share data between local, state and federal agencies.

Then, when the Labor Department created an Office of Integrity in 2011 to combat waste and fraud, the staff were not aware that there was an easy way to cross-reference court records with unemployment rolls.

Office of Integrity staff slogged away for months before someone pointed out that they could ask prison staff to use the JNET system to immediately determine if inmates were on the list of people who had filed unemployment claims, Goulet said. At that point, the Labor Department contacted JNET to work together, she said.

A pilot program targeting Philadelphia County began last May before it was expanded to statewide. The effort has prevented 3,000 inmates from collecting unemployment benefits.

The initiative identified 1,089 fraudulent claims in January alone. A county-by-county breakdown of fraudulent claims was not available.Goulet said she had no specific data about where the inmates seeking to perpetrate the unemployment fraud were incarcerated.

State officials put a conservative estimate on the reform of $12 million a year. But based on the state’s calculation including the average length of time a person collects unemployment (18 weeks) and the average benefit ($344 a week), just the claims averted in January saved the state more than $6 million.

Goulet said that the effort not only keeps the cash out of the hands of people who are not supposed to receive it, it frees up Labor Department investigators who would otherwise have had a much harder time verifying that fraudulent payments had been made.

To be eligible for unemployment, a person must be ready to work if a job is available. Those ensconced in a jail cell do not qualify.

Goulet said that the initiative is not intended to target county prisoners who are given short sentences of a day or two. In those cases, inmates would be able to satisfy the penalty ordered by the court and then return to society in time to remain available for work and eligible for unemployment.

The abuse occurs when friends or relatives or other conspirators file unemployment claims on behalf of inmates. With most unemployment benefits now being direct-deposited into bank accounts, the money is more easily accessible than paper checks, which an unemployed person would have to get cashed.

Goulet said there are opportunities for the state to recoup money inappropriately paid in the form of benefits. The method most often used involves garnishing a portion of an individual’s federal tax refund. The Labor Department has used that program to get $9.5 million back in benefits that were paid to people who didn’t qualify for them, she said. Not all of that reclaimed money involved fraud by prisoners, Goulet said.

Finnerty reports from Harrisburg for ommunity Newspaper Holdings Inc.’s Pennsylvania newspapers, including The Meadville Tribune. Follow him on Twitter @cnhipa.

1
Text Only
State News
  • Well inspectors trying to keep up during boom time

    The state’s 83 well inspectors face a daunting enough challenge keeping tabs on 120,000 active oil and gas wells that have been drilled over the last century.

    July 27, 2014

  • PennDOT seeking outside help to make bridge repairs

    State officials are poised to sign a massive deal that will enlist outside help to rebuild and maintain up to 600 bridges, marking the Corbett administration’s latest foray into privatizing key government functions.

    July 24, 2014

  • Gov. Corbett pressures lawmakers in pension fight

    Gov. Tom Corbett is ratcheting up pressure on the Legislature to reform the state’s pension system by focusing on how often school districts use tax increases to offset costs.

    July 22, 2014

  • Experts: Expanding coverage fuels doc shortage

    Pennsylvania’s health care system absorbed more than 300,000 new patients who signed up for insurance through Obamacare’s exchanges. But experts worry the system can’t handle another wave of patients, twice as large, should the state expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act.

    July 13, 2014

  • Jerry Sandusky’s son tells story to Oprah Winfrey

    Jerry Sandusky’s adult son is speaking out about what he says was sexual abuse by his father.

    July 8, 2014

  • Environmentalists criticize drilling-for-dollars plan in state forests and parks

    Pennsylvania’s just finished budget calls for raising almost $100 million by expanding leases for gas development in state forests — even though leases the state has already issued are far from tapped out.

    July 3, 2014

  • Pennsylvania House approves Republicans' $29.1B budget

    The Legislature voted late Monday to put a looming, $1.5 billion shortfall in its rearview mirror, with a deal to pass a $29.1 billion budget that increases state spending by 1.8 percent but doesn’t hike taxes.

    June 30, 2014

  • Food safety delivery concerns rise with fuel prices

    A few weeks ago state agriculture inspectors forced a trucker to toss 2,000 pounds of food in the garbage after finding the cargo had not been kept at safe temperatures.

    June 15, 2014

  • Tow truckers hope to put brakes on dispatch system

    Some tow truck operators are boycotting a computerized dispatch system put in place by state police, complaining that it’s confusing and leads to longer response times than when troopers and dispatchers manage a call.

    June 1, 2014

  • 'Economics' of state gubernatorial campaigns

    Gov. Tom Corbett’s re-election campaign hailed April’s jobs numbers. Pennsylvania’s unemployment dipped to 5.7 percent — its lowest since 2008 and well below the national average of 6.3 percent.
    “The people of Pennsylvania elected me to Harrisburg on my promise of less taxes and more jobs, and we continue to see that promise ringing tr

    May 25, 2014

Business Marquee
AP Video
Looming Demand Could Undercut Flight Safety Raw: 2 Shells Hit Fuel Tank at Gaza Power Plant Raw: Massive Explosions From Airstrikes in Gaza Giant Ketchup Bottle Water Tower Up for Sale Easier Nuclear Construction Promises Fall Short Kerry: Humanitarian Cease-fire Efforts Continue Raw: Corruption Trial Begins for Former Va Gov. The Carbon Trap: US Exports Global Warming UN Security Council Calls for Gaza Cease-fire Traditional African Dishes Teach Healthy Eating 13 Struck by Lightning on Calif. Beach Baseball Hall of Famers Inducted Israel, Hamas Trade Fire Despite Truce in Gaza Italy's Nibali Set to Win First Tour De France Raw: Shipwrecked Concordia Completes Last Voyage Raw: Sea Turtle Hatchlings Emerge From Nest Raw: Massive Dust Storm Covers Phoenix 12-hour Cease-fire in Gaza Fighting Begins Raw: Bolivian Dancers Attempt to Break Record Raw: Israel, Palestine Supporters Rally in US
Hyperlocal Search
Premier Guide
Find a business

Walking Fingers
Maps, Menus, Store hours, Coupons, and more...
Premier Guide
Stocks