WASHINGTON — Louisiana paid out $497 million in improper unemployment payments in the past three years, close to half of all claims filed, according to The White House.
Vice President Joe Biden released the figures Tuesday in announcing the administration’s efforts to crack down on government fraud, waste and abuse.
The federal numbers, however, did not take into account improvements that the state has made in the past year, in part correcting a computer glitch that added to the problems, said Curt Eysink, executive director of the Louisiana Workforce Commission.
The U.S. Department of Labor reported that Louisiana had the highest percentage of improper employment payments in the nation at 43.6 percent, or almost one out of two claims filed in the past three years.
The state has been making progress, Eysink said, reducing that figure to about 22 percent, or almost one in five.
“We’re not where we want to be clearly,” Eysink said. “We have a lot of work to do.”
Louisiana was listed by the Obama administration as one of six “high priority” states that the Labor Department is working with to ensure the development of a comprehensive turnaround plan.
High-performing states will be linked with the six to offer guidance and aid as the plans are developed and implemented. The Labor Department will continue to monitor and provide technical assistance to the states until they have achieved an improper payment rate under 10 percent that is sustained for six months, according to the statement.
“States bear the responsibility of operating an efficient and effective benefits program, but as partners the federal government must be able to hold them accountable for doing so,” U.S. Labor Secretary Hilda Solis said in a statement.
Louisiana’s picture isn’t as bleak as the federal government contends, Eysink said.
The state has cut the number of improper payment rates by more than half since 2010, making it the most improved in the country, Eysink said. The state was also swamped, he said, by claims filed as a result of hurricanes Ike and Gustav, and the tripling of unemployment claims filed as a result of the national economy.
Part of a claims problem has been solved, Eysink said, by the state fixing a computer glitch that resulted in the inaccurate reporting of overpayments.
The disconnect was between a system that tracks workers in the work-force system — those looking for work — and the system that manages unemployment claims. The unemployment system was not recognizing that claimants had registered to look for work, Eysink said.
The Labor Department said that almost half of the state’s improper payments were made to people who were not registered with the state’s employment service or job bank, as required by state statute.
Prior to the correction, the system was showing that 27 percent of benefits had work registration issues, a number that has been reduced to 3 percent, Eysink said.
“They were not errors that resulted in true overpayments,” said Eysink, who became executive director two years ago. “That issue is solved.”
Ultimately, the responsibility of reporting accurate claims lies with businesses, which must report workers released, and recipients, who must accurately report their employment status and income, Eysink said.
One in four of the overpayments went to people who continued to claim and receive benefits after returning to work, the administration reported. Another 15 percent of improper payments happened because employers sent inaccurate or late information.
State and federal authorities have arrested 47 people since April, including 17 from the Baton Rouge area, in an ongoing crackdown on fraudulent unemployment claims.
The fraud allegations were prompted by relying on tips and comparing records, Eysink said. A new program, which merges databases from various state agencies to quickly uncover questionable activities, will be working full time by the end of the year, Eysink said.
The Louisiana commission is also involved in a national pilot program sanctioned, in part, by the Labor Department, to reach out to businesses and claimants, spelling out their responsibilities in the unemployment claims system, Eysink said.
The administration listed Louisiana as “on track” in implementing improvements as part of their report on Wednesday.
The Labor Department also announced Wednesday that it is granting Louisiana $2.4 million to continue implementing its unemployment insurance improvement program. The money will be used for everything from paying for technology-based prevention to implementing an interstate system for reporting and verifying employment and wage data.
“Every one of these things are important,” Eysink said. “They all relate to dollars we want to protect.”