PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) -- Oregon has overpaid $392 million in unemployment benefits in recent years, according to a federal analysis, and state investigators have been overwhelmed by a soaring workload during the Great Recession.
The figure represents about 12 percent of the nearly $3.5 billion in benefits paid out during the three years that ended in June, according to the report by the U.S. Labor Department.
Some of the money was paid before the Oregon Employment Department determined a recipient was ineligible for benefits. But other checks went to people who fraudulently collected unemployment without looking for work, or who found a job and continued claiming benefits.
Oregon officials want to recover the money, which comes from employers, not individual taxpayers. But they say fraud cases have swamped the employment department, where caseloads at one point reached 400 per investigator, up from 150 before the recession.
"When you get to 400, I don't care how good you are, you can't work 400 cases at the same time," said Mike Murane, Employment Department benefit payment control manager, told The Oregonian (http://bit.ly/w14axC).
Nationwide, states paid nearly $19 billion in error during the three-year period studied by the Labor Department. The study covered only state programs, which provide payments for up to 26 weeks, and not the layers of federal programs that use public money to help provide benefits for as many as 73 more weeks.
Oregon recovers about 61 percent of the overpaid benefits, down from 86 percent in 2007, said Craig Spivey, an Oregon Employment Department spokesman. The agency's workload overwhelmed officials, he said, as the number of jobless in Oregon more than quadrupled by January 2009 to a peak of 217,000.
The number has dropped to just over 178,000 in the latest count.
"Since this huge, huge recession hit, the number of claims and the complexity of claims and the amount of what we need to go after have climbed," Spivey said.
Information from: The Oregonian, http://www.oregonlive.com