For the last 17 years, Marti Kurth has worked in public relations and communications primarily for nonprofit arts organizations through her business, Marti Kurth Media.
With her work geared toward the arts and music industry, which has been decimated by the coronavirus pandemic, Kurth’s workload came to a halt last spring, along with her husband who works independently as a graphic designer.
“When COVID hit, we both had clients,” Kurth said. “We’ve been pretty active in the arts and music industry for most of the time. When everything shut down we were crossing our fingers and hoping things would improve.”
As the Kurths waited for the economy to bounce back, they began applying for unemployment insurance. They received federal money through the CARES Act and state grants, which helped pay their mortgage, put food on the table and kept their businesses afloat.
In April, they applied for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program funds through the Montana Department of Labor and Industry (DLI), which caters to self-employed, independent contractors and “gig” workers.
They started receiving $184 each per week, which they expected would keep flowing until December. But they haven’t seen any since Aug. 1.
“My husband called (the department) and they said ‘we’ve had a lot of fraud and we’re just reviewing everybody … the issue is being resolved,’” Kurth said.
Three weeks later, Kurth called again and was told, “it’s waiting to be reviewed.”
“I kind of feel like I’m spitting in the wind,” Kurth said.
While there’s been a backlog of unemployment insurance claims since spring, officials at the Montana DLI say that even as operations are improving, there’s going to be a backlog for a long time.
“Those are probably the most overworked people in state government,” said Paul Martin, the administrator of the Unemployment Insurance Division.
On top of an overworked staff processing regular unemployment insurance claims and PUA program claims, which the Kurths were receiving, a separate team is also working to identify fraudulent claims, which are skyrocketing nationwide.
According to DLI officials, criminals are trying to collect benefits by fraudulently obtaining the addresses of for-sale properties and using them as their home addresses.
The PUA program was hit with fraudulent identity theft soon after it was enacted and since the program is designed for self-employed individuals, Martin says it’s difficult to authenticate since there’s no employer to verify claims.
“PUA was hit hard out of the gate,” Martin said. “That has tapered off … we have computer forensics to detect fraudulent claims, which our entire fraud team is working on quickly. We do not want to hold up any unemployment insurance claims.”
Between June 1 and Aug. 31, the department stopped $189 million in fraudulent payments in addition to another $185 million in possibly fraudulent payments.
Martin says criminals have stolen American identities over the years through the Equifax data breach, which exposed personal information of 147 million people in 2017, and individuals have since been waiting for an opportunity to use them. Once the pandemic began, the thieves pounced.
“I can’t tell you how they steal identities,” Martin said. “We’re the recipients. I don’t know how the breach at Equifax occurred, but what we’re seeing is downstream.”
If certain unemployment insurance claims raise red flags, Martin says the department cannot release benefits until the issue has been addressed. Benefits are allowed, denied or halted.
But while the Kurths haven’t been receiving their PUA funds, they say they haven’t been told why.
“I have not called them for two weeks because you wait on the phone for 45 minutes and then you get a person who can’t answer any of your questions,” Kurth said. “We got an email from a supervisor that said, ‘you’re under review and your paperwork is here; we can’t give you a time frame,’” Kurth said.
Martin says the department added 150 new staff to address the workload, but since each claim is different, it’s time consuming and staff is working as fast as they can. The DLI issued $10 million in unemployment insurance payments for the week of Sept. 21 through Sept. 25.
In the meantime while the Kurths wait for their benefits, they are exploring other business options to make ends meet, which could include ventures like charging visitors to stay on their property.
“I hope people understand we are not resting until this is over and we’re working day and night trying to get claims processed,” Martin said.
To report unemployment fraud, visit uid.dli.mt.gov/report-fraud or call (406) 444-0072.
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