Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Payment follies at the NC Employment Security Commission

The North Carolina Employment Security Commission (ESC) has made payment mistakes to unemployment insurance (UI) claimants totalling some $28 million and is now compounding its errors with confusing letters to those claimants.

The News & Observer reports
Thousands of long-term unemployed North Carolinians could soon owe the state money because the Employment Security Commission improperly made about $28 million in payments over the last two years.

Last week, the ESC began sending out letters to about 38,000 people who it has determined were either overpaid or underpaid through no fault of their own.

Recipients, all of whom received unemployment benefits for a year or longer, are getting anywhere from one to six letters depending on the number of times their benefits have been extended.

The final letter has the correct amount due, but the letters often aren't arriving in the right order. The letters also tell people they can apply for a waiver to have the overpayment forgiven. But the ESC can provide no details on how each wavier will be evaluated.

Despite sending out the letters, the ESC was unable on Monday to provide an estimate of how many people will owe the state money.

"We are hoping a majority of these [final letters] will say zero," said Larry Parker, an ESC spokesman.
The most basic function of the ESC is to administer the UI program, which means collecting the correct UI taxes and paying the correct benefits. The ESC has fallen down in this essential function.

Worse, instead coming up with a correction, the agency appears to have issued conflicting instructions to claimants. The ESC should have figured out a way to correct the problem before sending the first letter.

Instructions at the ESC web-site are far from helpful. Buried in small type on the agency's home page is a note
Some claimants may have received multiple monetary and adjustment letters in the mail. If you are one of these individuals and want to know more about what you have received click here.
Clicking leads to a message in pure bureaucratese
The primary goal of the Unemployment Insurance program is to pay benefits as timely and as accurately as possible. We have paid a record amount of claims over the past year and have discovered the possibility of some improperly paid claims. As a result, we have made corrections to our records. You may have received several monetary determinations and one or more letters relative to your payment history.

Some individuals received improper regular UI payments. Improper payments are being corrected with little impact on individuals in most cases. If you received improper regular UI payments, we have replaced those improper payments with proper EUC payments and with EB payments.

The letters contain instructions for you to follow. If you want to have further discussions about any letter that you have recently received, contact us by email at esc.ui.customerservice@ncesc.gov.
What could be clearer or more helpful? And you can bet that the e-mail responses from the ESC will be every bit as clear and helpful as the posted message and the original letters.

The state's unemployed have other things to worry about than wading through confusing and contradictory "monetary determinations" or pondering the propriety of regular UI, EUC, and EB payments.

To borrow from Jimmy Breslin, NC is fast becoming the state that couldn't shoot straight.