‘It’s kind of like a nightmare’: How Bank of America helped fuel California’s unemployment meltdown

Stephanie Moore sits with her eight-month-old dog Spooky at a local park in Lawndale, CA, on Nov. 17, 2020. Money unexpectedly went missing from Moore’s Bank of America-issued unemployment debit card. (Tash Kimmell for CalMatters) 

BY LAUREN HEPLER AND STEPHEN COUNCIL | CALMatters

For a brief moment this summer, Stephanie Moore thought she might finally see a glimmer of hope at the end of the coronavirus recession. Unemployment benefits provided a lifeline for the 38-year-old Los Angeles housekeeper to leave a bad relationship and rent an Airbnb while she looked for a job. But in early October, her state-issued Bank of America debit card balance plummeted from around $400 to negative $1,100 after a credit for fraudulent charges from months earlier was reversed without warning.

So began her unofficial full-time job trying to get the money back.

“It’s kind of like a nightmare,” Moore said. “Every day I’m wondering what’s more important. Do I get on the phone with the bank and try again so I have a place to sleep tomorrow, or do I just accept that I’m going to be on the street and focus on my job search? Because you can’t do both.”

For months, California’s Employment Development Department has attracted the ire of jobless workers and state lawmakers for a backlog of unpaid unemployment claims that peaked at 1.6 million. Now, Moore is among those entangled by potential security lapses and payment errors involving Bank of America, which since 2010 has had an exclusive contract to deliver state unemployment benefits through prepaid debit cards.

It’s a breakdown of the state’s job safety net that raises questions about the best way to get money into the hands of workers who desperately need it, since California is one of only three U.S. states that does not offer a direct deposit option, according to a CalMatters review of public documents. To this day, it’s not clear how much Bank of America has made from handling the bulk of the unprecedented $109 billion California has paid out in benefits since March. Lawmakers are examining the bank’s role in payment issues that began during a two-week identity-verification update, and whether the bank has provided adequate security for unemployment insurance money in the face of rampant fraud.

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Bank of America, whose contract is up next July, declined to answer detailed questions about how many unemployed Californians are still unable to use their debit cards, how much money has been withdrawn from accounts flagged for potential fraud, when and how claimants may be paid back or how much the bank has made in fees on the cards. The state told CalMatters that some 377,500 debit cards were frozen this fall and as of Thursday, around 350,000 accounts remain impacted, meaning progress has been slow.

“Unfortunately, there has been billions of dollars of fraud during this pandemic in state unemployment programs, including California,” Bank of America said in a statement to CalMatters, urging those impacted to contact the bank. “We are working with the state and law enforcement …read more

Source:: The Mercury News – Entertainment

      

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