Unemployment Benefits Overpayments

Citing Department of Labor data, CNNMoney reported today that the federal government and states overpaid an estimated $14 billion in unemployment benefits last year (about 11 percent of total benefits). The state of Indiana actually made more improper payments than it did correct ones, which has to be some sort of record for bureaucratic ineptitude.

As a Cato essay on the failures of the unemployment insurance system explains, large bureaucratic costs and misspent money are inevitable with massive, complex government programs:

State governments must raise taxes from almost 8 million businesses, with tax bills specifically calculated for each firm’s experience rating. At the same time, the states dole out individually calculated benefits to millions of workers and monitor whether each person making a claim is currently eligible. Businesses and states need to adjudicate the many disputed claims for benefits, and states need to police UI tax evasion as businesses try to manipulate the system to get a lower tax rate.

Federal and state UI administration cost taxpayers $5.9 billion in 2010. Despite this large cost, there is widespread concern among experts that the UI system is “in long-term decline” from an administrative perspective. UI computer systems are apparently far outdated in many states, and administrators say that they need more money to do their jobs competently.

One problem is that state UI tax systems are very complex. There are four different experience-rating systems, and there are three different methods of determining which businesses to charge when a worker makes a claim. States have various exclusions to the UI tax base, and new businesses have special rules because they don’t have an experience rating yet. Most states also impose a range of added charges to basic UI taxes, such as solvency taxes, taxes for socialized costs, reserve fund taxes, and various surtaxes.

Employers face substantial costs to deal with all the paperwork and tax planning needed to comply with the UI system. For example, the National Federation of Independent Business notes that regardless of eligibility, “many departing employees automatically file for unemployment compensation. They have nothing to lose; filing a claim costs nothing and it puts the ball in the employer’s court.” Businesses are then forced to spend time and money fighting unjustified claims.

There is a substantial amount of waste, fraud, and abuse in the UI system. Many people try to grab benefits improperly, including people who are ineligible, people who are not actively looking for work, and people who have taken jobs and neglect to report it. Other problems include the misreporting of earnings, the provision of false ID to gain benefits, and falsifying reasons for employment termination.