25 Investigates: A year into the pandemic, problems persist at the state’s unemployment agency

BOSTON — When the pandemic forced non-essential businesses to shut down, hundreds of thousands of Massachusetts resident were left without jobs.

The state’s unemployment rate soared to the highest in the country last July, overwhelming the state’s unemployment system like never before.

Viewers told us about problems signing up for benefits and long wait times to get through to the Department of Unemployment Assistance (DUA).

They needed help, but getting it was not easy and, in some case, it never came.

Investigative reporter Ted Daniel found that a year after pandemic-related mass layoffs began, many of the same problems persist, and some are still waiting for much-needed unemployment benefits.

“I call them every Monday, every Wednesday and every Friday. But all they do is just hang up on me,” said Gabriel Rodriguez of East Boston.

Rodriguez filed for unemployment last March when the Revere night club he worked at as a bouncer closed due to COVID-19. A year later, he’s still waiting for his claim to be processed.

“I have three children, and I have a girlfriend that is disabled,” said the East Boston resident. “I exhausted all my savings and my credit cards.”

25 Investigates has reported extensively on the problems that have plagued DUA since last spring – from long wait times to a massive backlog in claims and fraudulent unemployment filings.

In May, benefits were halted after it was revealed that Massachusetts was one of several states targeted by international scammers filing illegitimate claims.

By the summer, DUA added more call center staff and hired a national accounting firm to do a forensic investigation into the fraud.

But by the fall, problems involving DUA compounded. Another wave of fraud hit the system. This time scammers used debit cards to siphon unemployment funds.

“These fraudulent cards were mailed out, and money was actually deposited on many,” Terry Savage, a personal finance expert who tracks unemployment fraud, told 25 Investigates in November.

2021 ushered in new problems. Unsuspecting fraud victims received tax forms form the state showing unemployment benefits they did not receive.

Last month, DUA disclosed that as much as $700 million were wrongly paid out in fraudulent claims between April 2020 and January 2021. And just last week, the agency launched new security measures to protect against fraud and speed up the identity verification process.

Rodriquez said he hopes the new measures help resolve his case because he’s running out of options.

“I tried to do everything that I can. [If] I don’t pay rent this month, I’m homeless,” he said.

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