“There are people right now at zero. They have nothing.”
But he woke up to a disturbing sight Saturday: The Bank of America debit card that held over $5,000 in benefits had been reset to zero.
“That was my security blanket,” Brady told The Copper Courier. “If the COVID thing hits again, OK, I had this money saved up, this is my security.”
Brady said he’s tried calling both the Arizona Department of Economic Security (DES) and the bank to get answers, but he hasn’t been told if or when he can expect the money back.
“You have COVID going on. I see the lines of people waiting in line for hours on end to get their tests, and now they have no gas money to do it,” he said. “It’s ridiculous, how could [the state] even allow this to happen?”
A Widespread Problem
Brady, a behavioral health specialist who ended up moving to Illinois in April to have the support of his family, wasn’t the only other person to be sent back to square one.
A Facebook group for unemployment tips blew up over the weekend with people sharing screenshots of the same thing happening to their accounts, some even showing negative balances.
Michelle, who asked not to use her last name, said it happened to both her and her husband, causing her family to suddenly lose a “substantial amount” of money.
She received an email Friday night telling her about the account closure.
She said when she called DES they told her they were working with Bank of America on the issue, but they did not give an estimated time when the money could be returned.
“It sucks,” Michelle said. “It leaves the family in limbo, not knowing what’s going to happen.”
Esther, who also withheld her last name for privacy reasons, said she and her husband found out about the problem when they went to make a purchase at Target.
His card was declined and when they called the bank, they were told the account had been closed. When she checked on her account, it had been closed as well.
Esther said luckily she and her husband move their benefits off their card every week, so they only lost out on several hundred dollars, but that’s still money they very much need.
“That was the only relief we have right now,” she said.
DES Points to Fraud
DES issued a statement over the weekend saying they were investigating the issue.
But spokesman Brett Bezio said Monday that the agency had closed accounts they suspected of being fraudulent.
“DES has implemented numerous fraud indicators to detect and prevent criminal behavior within the unemployment insurance systems,” he wrote in an email. “The Department has been closely monitoring and running queries to identify fraud, and since putting these monitoring measures in place, tens of thousands of claims that already had payments distributed were found to contain a high probability of being fraudulent. The most recent action taken to close suspicious accounts and recover funds only affected individuals with claims filed out of state, the majority of which are believed to be fraudulent claims.”
Brady, Michelle, and Esther all lived in Arizona before moving out-of-state but believe they are still eligible for benefits due to previous jobs and other circumstances.
“Whenever additional fraud detection and prevention measures are put into place, there will be a small portion of individuals eligible for benefits who may be impacted by these measures,” Bezio wrote. “These individuals will still be able to access benefits. DES will continue to work diligently to get benefits to Arizonans in need while safeguarding taxpayer dollars against fraud.”
Brady expressed frustration over the situation, saying, “Now we have to prove [eligibility] all over again.”
Michelle said she has a letter from her new home state of Nevada telling her to file in Arizona.
“Definitely not fraudulent,” she said.
One of Many Unemployment Problems
Arizona’s unemployment system as a whole has been plagued with problems since the pandemic layoffs began. DES was late to the game in launching its PUA system, causing eligible workers, including self-employed and independent contract workers, to have to wait longer to begin filing than in other states.
The state’s Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA), which offered benefits to workers not normally covered under regular unemployment, wasn’t launched until May 15, long after other states debuted their systems.
For Arizonans like Esther, a business development manager at a car dealership who was laid off in March, the late rollout of PUA meant months of waiting to even apply. And once her application was in, Esther still didn’t receive unemployment for 10-11 weeks after applying.
“It kind of dips into your savings more than you want to,” she said. “Fortunately, we were both working and we did have a nest egg, but I know other people aren’t in that situation, so I would hate to even imagine what that would have been like.”
Brady said it’s frustrating to speak to people he knows in other states who haven’t had any issues receiving unemployment.
“Arizona has been really hard on their people for getting the funds that they deserve,” he said. “It’s ridiculous.”
He said part of the problem is the difficulty in reaching agents and connecting with someone who has enough knowledge of the system to help.
Both he and Esther reported waiting for hours on hold trying to get ahold of someone at DES.
“There are people right now at zero. They have nothing,” Brady said. “And I don’t know how the state can go on and bear that burden.”