Editorial: Why wasn’t rampant fraud in Ohio’s federal pandemic jobless claims revealed earlier?

Lt. Gov. Jon Husted recently revealed — in answer to a reporter’s question — that of 1.4 million Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) claims filed in Ohio, more than half had been flagged as potentially fraudulent. Brazen crooks even filed claims – unpaid – in the names of Gov. Mike DeWine, first lady Fran DeWine and Husted.

That’s unacceptable — not just the fraud, but the silence.

How long were Husted et al. going to sit on this? Until up to 700,000 Ohioans woke up one day to discover that someone else fraudulently spent their PUA dollars — and that they owed taxes on benefits they never received?

And could some of this relate to Ohio’s own mismanagement of its overwhelmed jobless claims system, mismanagement that’s harmed countless Ohioans who weren’t able to get benefits to which they were entitled, or couldn’t figure out how to dispute state demands for repayment of supposedly fraudulent benefits they felt were rightfully received?

Those problems — which the state is now proposing to address by bringing in executive overseers from the private sector — also have been blamed on the state jobless system’s creaking, 17-year-old computer system. Yes, it should have been upgraded long ago, and upgrades are now in the works.

But meantime, folks trying to report PUA fraud are liable to run into the same gauntlet of an overwhelmed Ohio Department of Job and Family Services (ODJFS) — without adequate staff or an acceptably functioning computerized claims systems — that regular state jobless applicants are still encountering.

The state has put a big red button on the ODJFS website to report PUA fraud. Maybe, that will help.

The PUA program is 100% federally funded and, according to the National Employment Law Project, “provides emergency unemployment assistance to workers who are left out of regular state (Unemployment Insurance) or who have exhausted their state UI benefits.”

As of mid-January, cleveland.com’s Jeremy Pelzer reported, Ohio had made more than $7.8 billion in PUA payments to more than 827,000 Ohioans. Till recently, PUA benefits required less documentation than traditional benefits, a fact that could have helped scammers defraud the system.

… Can ODJFS do better? Yes, as can every state agency – if it isn’t hobbled by a feckless legislature.

Meantime, Ohioans need to be told when fraudulent claims have become as common as snowflakes in winter. Shame on state officials for waiting to be asked.

— Cleveland Plain Dealer, Jan. 31