State paying unemployment benefits to jailed felons; legitimate jobless people get a busy signal

For the second year in a row, state auditors have found numerous problems with the state’s unemployment benefits system, reports The Tennessean.

An audit last year found that at least $73 million in jobless benefits were improperly paid out. But this year’s version found that the amount had ballooned to $181 million. And it found new problems with ineligible people — dead and alive — drawing benefits.

People with legitimate claims to unemployment, meanwhile, continue to struggle with a phone system nearly impossible to get through, the new audit found. Those lucky enough to have their calls answered — about 15 percent of callers according to June 2013 statistics — endured nearly an hour of waiting, on average.

“I just sit and I redial, redial, redial, I try all hours of the day,” said Karen Lacey, a Nashville resident who has been trying to get unemployment benefits since March 3. “It’s been a big problem.”

The state audit looked at the Tennessee Department Of Labor and Workforce Development and its handling of federal tax dollars during the 2013 fiscal year, which ended June 30, 2013. Just two months before that, then-Commissioner Karla Davis and two of her top administrators resigned.

The new audit found that the state still wasn’t ensuring that everyone receiving unemployment qualified for that benefit. A sample size of 200 accounts found that more than 10 percent didn’t have proper documentation.

Simple cross-matches comparing unemployment beneficiaries to other databases found that the state had been giving unemployment benefits to at least 19 people employed by the state of Tennessee. Auditors also found that three dead people had been paid unemployment.

The findings echo an audit last year, which found 24 state employees and seven dead people receiving benefits.

But in a new twist, this year’s audit found that 84 felons behind bars had also been cut unemployment checks. Part of the problem, auditors found, was that the labor department didn’t know how to check for convicted felons in county jails. But six of those 84 were in state prisons — a fact the Labor Department didn’t explain.