Fraud Changes Access to Benefits for Excluded Workers | News, Sports, Jobs

ALBANY – Fraudulent activity targeting the $ 2.1 billion Excluded Workers Fund (EWF) has prompted state officials to block the ability of cardholders to obtain cash benefits from ATMs, has learned CNHI Monday.

The fund has been touted as a lifeline for individuals, many of them undocumented immigrants, who were not eligible for federal stimulus payments last year. Almost all of the program’s beneficiaries received the state’s maximum allowance – $ 15,600 per applicant.

Recipients received benefit electronic transfer cards, similar to debit cards, which at least initially could have been used at ATMs for quick cash withdrawals.

Bad actors

The state Department of Labor, responding to a request from CNHI, acknowledged that the ability for recipients to use these cards at ATMs ended on December 28.

“As a precaution, we have suspended the possibility of withdrawing money from ATMs for cardholders with a balance remaining on their prepaid cards”, Aaron Fallon, a spokesperson for the Department of Labor, said.

The move, he said in a statement, is intended to protect New Yorkers from “to be a victim of fraud” and make sure the money goes to the intended recipients, while blocking “Bad actors to prey on New Yorkers.” “

“These cardholders have the option of making free withdrawals in person at most banks and credit unions that accept Visa debit cards,” Fallon added.

State Police, meanwhile, have confirmed that their detectives are assisting the Labor Department with an investigation into a suspected misuse of the cards.

State officials did not provide any details on the extent of the alleged fraud in the delivery of benefits.

Boost the fund

Advocates for the fund have already launched a new campaign to convince Gov. Kathy Hochul and the legislature that they should spend an additional $ 3 billion on the program this year after the state was overwhelmed with claims for the year. last.

State Senator Dan Stec, R-Queensbury, who opposed the creation of the fund, called the alleged fraud disturbing. He urged state police and Governor Kathy Hochul “To put all their authority behind this investigation so that taxpayers can know what is happening.”

Stec argued that fraud within the program was inevitable, as its beneficiaries include people who are in the country illegally. “It’s taxpayers’ money, and they’re throwing it away like it’s not real,” said Stec.

Campaign coordinator for additional funding, Bianca Guerrero of Fund Excluded Workers, has not raised any objections to ending the use of ATM withdrawals with EBT cards.

“Our priority is to ensure that workers have access to all the benefit levels to which they are entitled. “ Guerrero said. “We support this decision to protect workers. The safest option for workers is to withdraw cash using the ATMs of financial institutions participating in VISA. “

Guerrero said there are several reasons his organization thinks the fund should be replenished with $ 3 billion.

“There had been an overwhelming demand for the fund since it opened in August, and after just nine weeks the fund was depleted.” Guerrero said.

She added that “Geographic barriers and outstanding political issues have prevented thousands of eligible workers from applying, particularly in upstate New York and more rural areas of the state.”

“Organizations in the upstate did not have enough time to hire staff, do enough outreach or help workers with applications.” she said. “Many consulates were shut down and, in many cases, it took weeks or even months for workers to renew passports and identity cards and prepare the necessary documents. “

Lawmakers, she said, expressed “Significant support” for sending more money from the state to the fund this year.

Members of the program

According to a projection by the Fiscal Policy Institute, an additional 295,000 people would be eligible for the EWF if the state provided the $ 3 billion currently sought.

Data from the Ministry of Labor shows that 130,536 people had their EWF funding applications approved out of the 350,823 applications submitted.

State rules for the program stated that applicants could not be questioned about their immigration or citizenship status. Those who applied for the allowance had to be ineligible for unemployment benefits or other federal COVID-19 relief income. Recipients had to demonstrate that they had lost some or all of their income after February 2020 due to COVID-19. They were also expected to earn less than $ 26,208 in the past year.

influx of candidates

On September 3, five weeks before an increase in the number of nominations resulted in the cessation of acceptance of new nominations, Hochul announced that the payments were “get out earlier than expected to provide these people with the financial relief they need and deserve.”

On October 8, State Labor Commissioner Roberta Reardon referred to the prompt processing of claims and the issuance of funds, thanking advocates for those claiming the benefits. “We couldn’t have put this program in place as quickly as we did, or reached the number of individuals we did, without their continued support. “ Reardon said.

The program published materials in 13 different languages ​​and a multilingual call center of 600 workers assisted potential beneficiaries.

State Conservative Party Chairman Gerard Kassar, critic of the Excluded Workers Fund, said it and other benefit programs implemented by the state and the federal government during the pandemic have been tainted lack of proper oversight.

“Money should never be disbursed unless it can be justified” said Kassar.

Only affects ATMs

The Department of Labor advises that cardholders can continue to use their existing cards to purchase items in articles and online, provided these retailers accept Visa debit cards.

“The only change is the ability of cardholders to withdraw money from an ATM; all other terms and conditions contained in the cardholder’s agreement remain unchanged ”, the Ministry of Labor reported.

The state hired Navient, a company that operates call centers and collects student loans, to interact with fund seekers.

Cardholders who have questions about their benefits are asked to contact the program’s customer service center at 833-458-4262.

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