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State nabbing innocent job seekers in unempoyment crackdown?

Creating and maintaining the proper paperwork while collecting unemployment can sometimes be harder than it seems. Nevertheless, some innocent job seekers say they've been caught up in the state's unemployment crackdown.

Recently, Washington's Employment Security Department sent out a news release announcing it had identified 9,000 people in 2010 who were not actively seeking work. The state said the individuals would have to pay back $23 million in benefits.

But those claims of jobless benefit fraud may be overstated.Marc Lampson, an attorney with the Unemployment Law Project in Seattle, says his office gets  1,500 calls a month, many from people who are being required to pay back benefits even though they've been looking for work. 

“The idea that there are lots of people around who are cheating the system is just not accurate,” he said.

One man who contacted the Unemployment Law Project was being accused of failing to do an adequate job search even though he was applying for jobs advertised on Craigslist. The on-line service has specific codes associated with each job post and the person had not written down those  numbers. But, Lampson contends the state form is confusing.

"If you look at the employment office's job search log, there’s nothing that tells you you're supposed to record those numbers," Lampson said.

Conflicting advice

In addition, he says, often recipients get conflicting advice when they call the Employment Office asking for help.

Employment Security Department spokesman Jamie Swift defends the call center the department uses to field questions, saying the large staff is well trained and consistent. But he acknowledges some jobless benefit recipients  may be confused by state requirements.

"We're reviewing our online claim information to make it more efficient and clear," Swift said.

Lampson says it isn’t just the lack of clarity on forms that’s the problem.  Sometimes, he says it’s the state’s interpretation of what constitutes a “reasonable job search.”

One woman who contacted the Unemployment Law Project could no longer do heavy lifting even though her previous job required it.

"She was looking for secretarial or receptionist work and was told that wasn’t a realistic job search because it wasn’t in keeping with her past work,” Lampson said.

Many appeals successful

The Unemployment Law Project has helped dozens of people successfully appeal orders from the state to pay back benefits.  

According to the state:

  • 45% of jobless benefit recipients who appeal to a hearing examiner are successful in overturning the payback order.
  • But only 7% of jobless benefit recipients who receive payback orders appeal.

Organizations who work with the unemployed say the low percentage of appeals isn't necessarily an admission of guilt by  recipients.  Rather, they say, it may have something to do with the hassle factor.
Some jobless benefit recipients who've gone through the appeals process say gathering up the necessary paperwork to prove exactly what websites you visited and who you talked to when in the past year, as evidence of your job search, can be overwhelming.

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