Hundreds of Homeland Security employees were paid unemployment benefits during the pandemic despite being on the job, the department’s inspector general revealed Thursday.
Even worse, some of the unemployment money was actually paid by Homeland Security itself under an emergency unemployment program the Trump administration “hastily” created in 2020, investigators said. That meant the department was making bogus payments to its employees.
The audit identified nearly 2,400 claims from Homeland Security employees and found about 600 of them were clearly eligible. Roughly 900 others were deemed “potentially” ineligible, and the remaining 900 or so were definitely ineligible, the inspector general said.
Some may have been cases of identity fraud, with someone filing a bogus claim in the name of an unsuspecting employee. But other cases appear to be old-fashioned double-dipping.
Nearly three dozen employees even filed unemployment claims from Homeland Security computer systems, suggesting they were on the job at the exact time they were claiming unemployment.
In 366 cases, pay records showed that employees received unemployment benefits even though they were not just working, but also putting in overtime or extra shifts. One employee averaged 147 hours of work per two-week pay period while the department was also paying unemployment.
Sen. Rob Portman, the top Republican on the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, said he was “alarmed” by the findings.
“If these allegations are correct, those in charge of protecting our homeland were exploiting it for personal gain,” he said.
He asked the Justice Department to pursue action against any employees who were double-dipping.
The inspector general’s report focused on an emergency unemployment program that the Trump administration created at the Federal Emergency Management Agency in the summer of 2020.
While Congress had created an initial $600-a-week additional unemployment benefit at the start of the pandemic, lawmakers couldn’t agree on an extension, so the administration used disaster money at FEMA to add six more weeks of benefits, at either $300 or $400.
Like the main unemployment program, the federal money went to states’ workforce agencies (SWA), which actually made the payments.
And like the main pandemic unemployment program, the FEMA program was rife with fraud, the inspector general concluded. In a report earlier this month, investigators identified roughly 10% of the FEMA unemployment money showed signs of improper payments.
Thursday’s report put a fine point on the matter, with investigators finding problems inside Homeland Security — which oversees FEMA.
The audit said “FEMA overly relied” on the existing unemployment system, which had serious weaknesses. And FEMA didn’t require states to impose critical fraud checks before spending the money.
Roughly 770 employees at the Transportation Security Administration were paid unemployment, with only about 150 of those being deemed clearly eligible.
At FEMA itself, more than 1,100 employees were paid, and just 400 of those claims were deemed clearly eligible — and 111 of those were still probably fraudulent.
All told, the department paid $2.6 million in disaster unemployment benefits to employees who weren’t clearly eligible.
Jim H. Crumpacker, Homeland Security’s liaison to the inspector general, said in an official reply to the report that FEMA had to rush to create the emergency unemployment program in August 2020, and made its first payment just six days after then-President Trump established the program.
But he complained that the inspector general ignored anti-fraud efforts the department did undertake.
The inspector general said those came too late.
“FEMA’s policies did not require SWAs to implement controls to prevent fraud from occurring; instead, they focused on detecting fraud after the fraudulent activity already occurred,” the audit said.