RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) — North Carolina’s Division of Employment Security overpaid nearly $70 million to people during the COVID-19 pandemic, part of which was due to fraud, leaders of the agency told state lawmakers Tuesday.
Assistant Secretary Pryor Gibson said in the first nine months of 2020, the total overpaid was about $69.8 million. Of that, he said $8.8 million was due to identity theft.
The agency is trying to get back what it can, Gibson said.
“We don’t know who the true criminal is, who the true fibber is,” he said.
Of the overpayments, about $45 million were tied to the Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation program, which was a federal program through the CARES Act that gave people an additional $600 per week when the pandemic began.
So far, the state has recovered almost $20.7 million in overpayments, Gibson said.
Gibson said his agency has taken steps to improve fraud detection, working with outside consultants to improve technology and tripling staff assigned to investigate cases of suspected fraud.
“We never do enough to prevent fraud. We’re doing all that we can in the time constraints where we are. But, if you ask me that question 30 days from now, we’ll have a whole other set of tools,” Gibson said.
Most of the overpayments are not due to fraud, he said. The most common reason is an unintentional error on the part of someone applying for benefits.
State lawmakers expressed concerns about people who received those overpayments that were not fraudulent and are now being asked to return them when the money might already have been spent on bills and other necessities.
“We have a high level of sensitivity for those folks that received overpayments as a result of something that was of no fault of their own,” said Sen. Chuck Edwards (R-48th District).
Since the pandemic began, DES has sent out about $9.6 billion in payments to North Carolinians, most of which came through multiple federal programs.
Gibson said that’s created challenges in getting payments to people as each program comes with new guidance from the federal government.
“Every time something changes at the federal level, the goalposts move. And, we have to kind of stop what we’re doing down this path, look up and make sure we’re moving toward the right goalposts,” he said.
Jenni Propst told CBS 17 last week she and some of her colleagues who are also out of work had been waiting weeks to receive payments they qualified for under the most recent stimulus bill that passed last month.
“Right now, I don’t even know who the problem is,” she said.
She started receiving the payments Saturday, about a month after the bill was signed into law and is she worried about being able to pay her mortgage.
When asked about the wait people have been experiencing, Gibson said, “They will be eligible. It just takes some time to get them through the process and get those payments retroactive.”