Columns Opinion Your Views — 26 December 2013
MY VIEW: Sophieís choice: unemployment fraud

By Denise Dunbar
(Photo/File Photo)

Denise Dunbar

I recently saw a picture of a D.C. bus with a sign on it that said, “Unemployment Fraud is a Crime.” The issue of unemployment benefits has been in the news lately, as extension of long-term payments was debated in the budget deal that just passed Congress.

The sign and the debate reminded me of a tale I heard a couple of months ago from an Alexandria friend who runs a small business.

This friend, “Russell,” hired a woman, “Sophie,” early last year to do some skilled computer work at his firm. Russell wasn’t blown away by Sophie’s resume, but she seemed to have the necessary skills, so he hired her.

It was quickly apparent that Sophie wasn’t up to the job. She struggled to keep pace, and Russell had to bring in a temp to finish her work. After three weeks of waiting in vain for her to get up to speed, Russell decided to cut his losses and fire Sophie.

Someone works for three weeks and is fired with cause — end of story, right? Sophie didn’t think so.

A few weeks later, Russell received notice from the Virginia Employment Commission that Sophie had filed for unemployment benefits, and his firm was going to have a large unemployment bill if she won. Fortunately for him, the commission employee practically laughed Sophie off the phone during their three-way call, as it was apparent she had no claim.

Again, end of story, right? Clever Sophie didn’t think so.

A month or so later, Russell received a letter from the Illinois Department of Employment Security (notice the department name, as it clues one into where this is going). This letter said that Sophie had filed for unemployment benefits in Illinois, despite the fact that she resided in Virginia and the employment in question had taken place there. The letter also said that Sophie had claimed she was fired for lack of work, which was a bald-faced lie.

Russell did what the letter asked: He stated his reasons for firing Sophie and faxed his letter back to the Illinois department. A few weeks later, he received notice that his objection was insufficient and that Sophie would begin receiving Illinois unemployment benefits.

Russell’s firm was not directly liable for any of this payment as it was out of state. Instead, Illinois and all U.S. taxpayers were footing the bill.

Russell was upset, but what could he do? He went on with his work and put Sophie and her fraudulent claim out of his mind.

In mid-August, Russell received another letter from the Illinois Department of Employment Security. Sophie, apparently still residing in Virginia, was requesting an extension of her Illinois unemployment benefits for her three-week Virginia employment of more than a year prior.

This letter was dated July 31, and it said that he had until August 10 to state his reasons why Sophie shouldn’t receive benefits and fax it back to the department. Problem was Russell didn’t receive this letter until August 12.

Russell thought that this abuse of the system was just too much, and he decided to fight it more actively. So, he called the number listed on the letter and, after listening to a five-minute message that was all about how people could receive benefits, heard an extension that employers could dial. He dialed that number and was then put on hold for an hour — an annoying, endless loop of ringing and beeps.

At the end of that hour, a live employee of the Illinois Department of Employment Security came on the line. The man was polite but incredulous that Russell, whose firm was not on the hook for the unemployment payments, was making the effort to call and protest.

Russell explained that he received the letter after the stated deadline and Sophie had lied about her termination when she filed for benefits. The state employee told Russell that he still needed to comply with the letter’s request for a written statement and fax it back.

So, again, Russell stated that Sophie had been fired with cause because she couldn’t do the work and faxed it back. A few weeks later, he received a letter from the Illinois department that said this was the same rebuttal he made the prior year, and Sophie was getting her benefits.

Clever, clever Sophie turned three weeks of employment in Virginia into two years of unemployment benefits from Illinois by lying and working the system. And we wonder why our government, at all levels, is going bankrupt.

- The writer is the publisher of the Alexandria Times.

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