Thousands of federal workers applied for and received COVID-19-related unemployment benefits and continued getting their regular paychecks during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa), who’s calling for a federal investigation to identify the offenders and recover the tax dollars improperly paid to them.
“Staff from numerous government agencies, including the IRS, TSA [Transportation Security Administration], FEMA [Federal Emergency Management Agency], the U.S. Postal Service, Amtrak, and the Secret Service, have been detected receiving jobless benefits while also being on the federal government’s payroll,” Ernst said in a Jan. 30 statement.
“Some were even paid overtime at the same time [they were] claiming to have lost wages due to the pandemic. Others were so blatant, they actually applied for jobless benefits from their work computers.
“In addition to fleecing taxpayers, these unscrupulous bureaucrats have also tarnished the reputation of the other dedicated civil servants, many of whom worked long hours in essential jobs during the pandemic.”
More than $5 trillion in federally funded COVID-related benefits—including $716 billion in state-administered unemployment compensation—were authorized in response to the pandemic, which began in January 2020. More than 1 million Americans have died as a result of COVID-19.
Ernst expressed outrage that millions of Americans not working for the federal government lost their jobs and found themselves in desperate economic straits. The Iowa senator gave her January 2023 Squeal Award to the thousands of “fraudsters within the federal workforce who double dipped by being on both the government’s dole and the unemployment roll.”
“Millions of Americans lost their paycheck during the COVID-19 pandemic, as they found themselves jobless and unsure how they would provide for their family. While business owners and workers across the nation faced this economic uncertainty, federal employees were fortunate to have the reliability of a government paycheck,” Ernst said in her statement.
“Despite this reassurance, tens of thousands of federal employees applied for and received financial aid that was intended for small businesses,” she said, pointing to a recent report by the Pandemic Response Accountability Committee (PRAC).
Department of Justice Inspector General Michael Horowitz is chairman of PRAC.
Ernst also made public her Jan. 27 letter to Horowitz calling for a government-wide investigation to identify all federal workers who improperly got COVID-related unemployment checks and recover the money paid to them. Failure to report such benefits could also expose such individuals to the prospect of tax fraud prosecution.
In her letter to Horowitz, Ernst noted that PRAC “has already identified tens of thousands of federal employees who applied for and received small business loans for which they were not eligible.”
“I would encourage you to conduct a similar review to determine how many unscrupulous bureaucrats wrongfully took advantage of the federal pandemic unemployment and lost wages assistance programs,” the letter reads. “There is ample evidence that thousands of federal employees working for various federal agencies may have fraudulently applied for and received payments from these programs.”
Ernst noted that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is prominent among the federal departments and agencies that have been identified as having civil servants who received COVID-related unemployment benefits in addition to their regular paychecks.
“Nearly 2,000 [DHS] employees or fraudsters may have been paid more than $2 million in fraudulent COVID-19 unemployment benefits, according to a review by the Department’s Office of Inspector General (OIG), for example,” she wrote. “The OIG determined 935 of the DHS employees signed up and approved to receive Lost Wages Assistance were ineligible and another 874 were potentially ineligible for the program. In fact, 336 of the DHS employees claiming to be unemployed received overtime pay.”
The ineligible DHS workers discovered by the OIG worked at the Secret Service, Federal Emergency Management Agency, Transportation Security Administration, and other components of the department.
“I hope this money can be recovered, and, to deter those who might ever think of trying to do this again in the future, those who abused the public trust will have their federal employment terminated,” Ernst told Horowitz.
COVID-related unemployment benefit fraud isn’t limited to the federal government, as audits by officials in three states—Georgia, Indiana, and Louisiana—have identified hundreds of active state and local government employees who wrongfully applied for and received unemployment payments totaling more than $6 million during the pandemic.
There has also been substantial related fraud in the private sector, as seen in a recent investigation by the Office of the Inspector General at the Department of Labor. That investigation led to the indictment of more than 1,000 individuals on unemployment fraud charges, with more than 400 convictions to date.
Horowitz will testify on waste, fraud, and abuse in pandemic response programs on Feb. 1 during the first hearing of the House Committee on Oversight and Accountability, chaired by Rep. James Comer (R-Ky.). The hearing is titled “Federal Pandemic Spending: A Prescription for Waste, Fraud, and Abuse.”