More than 74,000 cases of improper unemployment insurance payments occurred in Oklahoma over the past five years, a Tulsa World analysis of Oklahoma Employment Security Commission data shows.
Payments between 2007 and 2011 equaled more than $47.8 million funded by employer taxes and federal money, data shows. The commission attempts to recover money when it discovers improper payments, agency spokesman John Carpenter said.
The Oklahoma Employment Security Commission provides unemployment benefits to qualified residents through the state's unemployment insurance program and the federal emergency unemployment compensation program. The agency also provides services for the work force and business community.
Employers pay taxes that fund Oklahoma's unemployment insurance program. The separate, federally funded emergency program temporarily extends payments for people who have exhausted regular state benefits. The emergency program began in 2008 and is scheduled to end in January.
Nearly 80 percent of the more than 74,000 improper payment cases involved state benefits, equaling $38.1 million, data shows. Other improper payment cases were through the emergency program. Cases can last for one or several weeks, Carpenter said.
The number of state program improper payment cases more than doubled between 2007 and 2011, increasing from nearly 5,000 cases to more than 10,000, data shows. Cases increased for three consecutive years until falling more than 40 percent between 2010 and 2011.
Increases are directly tied to the unprecedented rise in the number of claims filed with the agency because of the recession, Carpenter said.
From 2007 to 2011, the number of state program claims the commission paid increased more than 50 percent, from approximately 112,000 to almost 171,000, data show. Over the period, more than 850,000 claims worth nearly $1.59 billion were paid.
Improper payments fall into three categories, Carpenter said.
Claimant error payments occur because a claimant mistakenly provided incorrect information when applying for benefits, he said.
Administrative error payments occur when the agency approves a claimant's benefits only to later discover that person did not qualify, Carpenter said.
An employer has 10 days to protest a claim filed against them, Carpenter said. Sometimes employers return late paperwork that shows the person already approved for benefits does not qualify.
"That's actually a large percentage of the (improper) claims that were made," Carpenter said. "Fraud is a part of it, but it isn't a huge part of it."
Just more than 20 percent of improper payment cases involved fraud, data show. Fraud occurs when individuals intentionally represent themselves as eligible for payments they are not entitled to, according to state law.
Improper payments occur rarely in Oklahoma compared to other states, according to a Department of Labor analysis released last summer. Oklahoma's projected improper payment rate of less than 6 percent was the seventh lowest when compared to other states, the analysis shows.
Rates were highest in Indiana and Louisiana, where rates were more than 43 percent.
"We did do very well, but you're still talking about millions of dollars. Doing well is not good enough," Carpenter said.
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