- Associated Press - Monday, March 7, 2016

OLYMPIA, Wash. (AP) - Many people in county jails are receiving unemployment benefits they’re ineligible for, according to a state audit released on Monday.

Washington’s auditor’s office scrutinized eight county jails and identified 1,911 potential overpayments worth about $656,000 from July 1, 2013 to Sept. 30, 2014. Of those 1,911, the Employment Security Department identified 1,264 payments that should have been at least partially denied, worth around $420,300, according to the department’s communications director Janelle Guthrie. The department has recollected roughly $100,000 so far, she said.

People in jail or prison aren’t eligible for certain government benefits. To find incarcerated people who received unemployment benefits, the audit looked at jails in King, Pierce, Thurston, Clark, Spokane, Kitsap, Snohomish and Yakima counties, matching records of unemployment benefits to jail records such as Social Security number, last name and date of birth. But the Employment Security Department, which distributes unemployment money, can’t access some of the confidential jail records necessary to find improper payments, according to a report by the auditor’s office.

Guthrie said another challenge for the department is that people don’t serve as much time in jail compared to state-run prisons, so it’s easier to avoid paying unemployment benefits to prisoners.

“With the jail population you may have somebody who goes into jail overnight,” she said.

Though only eight of 57 jails in the state were audited, Guthrie and officials from the auditor’s office said the overpayment can’t be directly extrapolated across the other 49 jails because the audit looked at eight large county jails. Jails are run by counties, cities and Native American tribes.

The report says the auditor’s office recommends the state Legislature allow the employment agency to access confidential jail information needed to identify improper payments. In the meantime, Guthrie said the department has a temporary work-around to help prevent further overpayment.

“I think we need a legislative fix,” she said. “I think we’re talking about requesting that next session.”

Sen. Mark Miloscia, R-Federal Way, said he would support legislation to give the employment department access to further jail records. He said in times of high unemployment, the overpayments could have been even worse, and hopes the department looks for more ways to reduce improper payment of benefits.

“Good catch by the state auditor’s office,” he said. “Hopefully we’ll get this all fixed.”

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