THE INVESTIGATORS: LWC flagged in audit for $3 million in improper payments
BATON ROUGE, La. (WAFB) - The Louisiana Workforce Commission is back in the hot seat after auditors say the agency may have let $3 million slip out the door and into the wrong hands. The folks in charge over at LWC say the pandemic created the perfect storm and problems like this were unavoidable.
Auditors say LWC violated state and federal rules allowing the money to go out the door improperly.
WAFB’s Scottie Hunter asked Brent McDougall, a data analyst who worked on the audit, how this was able to happen.
“There were multiple causes for how the payments were handled. Some had to do with changes in the status regarding the eligibility of individuals,” said McDougall. “Some had to do with some people submitting multiple applications and changing information on it and there were other instances where we didn’t get specific information regarding why they happened.”
From March 2020 to July of this year, auditors say LWC shelled out $898,400 to folks enrolled in multiple programs at once and then dropped the ball on almost $2 million in overpayments and another $33,536 in duplicate benefits.
”This is our fourth report on this program and it’s because of the large dollar amount that’s been handed out,” McDougall.
According to representatives with LWC mistakes were bound to happen given the circumstances.
”What we know is that we paid out almost 10 billion dollars in benefits to people who needed it. So these numbers, while they are significant, are small in comparison to the amount of money we were able to pay so folks could put food on the table and keep a roof over their head,” said Chris Fiore, director of public information for LWC.
In a response, Secretary Ava Cates said at the height of the pandemic, unemployment claims skyrocketed by 2,000 percent. She adds the explosion of the program did not give them enough time to test their system to make sure money was handed out without any mistakes. Fiore with LWC is tackling the audit head on saying yes mistakes were made but overall, the program was a success.
”Our staff was working their hardest to make sure that we could handle all that was incoming. Nobody was ready for the pandemic but we did our best and we did right by the people of Louisiana,” said Fiore.
Fiore adds because of the crushing weight of the need during that time, the expectation that LWC would be able to implement a number of new programs from scratch flawlessly is just not realistic but he says they are working to fix the issues and make sure they are better going forward.
”I think we are adjusting our processes. We are learning from the COVID-19 pandemic like we do every day but I think at the end of the day the most important thing we could do is try to help people. We’re trying to do that better and smarter and we have processes in place to do that but it was challenging, not doubt about it,” said Fiore.
Auditors say they are looking into other areas of LWC during the same time period but it is unclear if they will find other situations they flag as a problem.
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