Inmates on Unemployment
On Point with Chris Papst
As a reporter, occasionally a great story just falls into my lap. It doesn't happen often, but when it does, it's a great feeling. And in this instance, it could make a great impact on our state.
A few months ago, I was in a bar in southeastern Pennsylvania with my wife. While standing near the pool tables, I overheard some patrons talking about friends who collected unemployment while incarcerated. At that moment, the reporter in me took over. I started asking questions - a lot of questions. And I discovered this is not rare. Many inmates in our state collect unemployment. A few weeks later, I sat down with one of them.
When the man we interviewed lost his job, he filed for unemployment. A short while later, he began serving a two-month jail sentence for a DUI-related infraction. While incarcerated, he didn’t want to leave his roommates with higher bills. And he didn’t want to be broke when he got out. So, he devised a plan to still collect while behind bars.
Before reporting to jail, he gave his girlfriend his social security number, unemployment ID and wrote out instructions for her to file the claim online as if she were him. Every two weeks the money went onto a debit card. During his two months in jail, he collected $1500.
“Once you start the filing system there’s no camera, there’s nothing looking at you, nothing verifying who you are to file,” the man, who wished not to be identified, said. “It's a loophole.”
When he got home, he had to call the unemployment office to update his status. They had no idea he was ever in jail. No one said a word to him. He was truly surprised at how easy it was to cheat the state. And he knew of other inmates who did the same. There’s just an unwritten rule in jail; you don’t talk about it.
It already cost taxpayers tens of millions every year to house inmates in our crowded jails and give them food, clothing and health care. To find out they are collecting government checks on top of that has many people outraged.
In researching this story, I learned that only two states waste more unemployment dollars than Pennsylvania. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, $376 million was wasted in our commonwealth just last year.
Representative Ron Miller is the Chairman of the House Labor and Industry Committee, which writes the laws and regulates the state’s unemployment program. He agreed to speak with us for this investigation. He says they are always trying to find ways to make the unemployment system more fraud-proof. But it turns out, he had no idea this was happening. And he certainly had no idea it would be so easy.
“You have brought this to my attention at this point in time,” He said. “I will be talking to the appropriate people to see what could be done to put safeguards in to stop such a thing.”
It would not be difficult for the state to stop this blatant abuse of tax dollars. A simple social security cross reference between the prison system and the unemployment program would be quick and easy. New York has been doing it for five years. But it's not being done. And it's costing PA taxpayers untold millions.
Representative Miller said legislative hearings on this topic should start by late April or May. If he holds true to his word, this story could end up changing law in our state. And it all happened by chance.
Chris Papst is a two-time Emmy Award winning reporter for CBS-21 News. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter @chrispapst.