BOSTON (CBS) – The state of Massachusetts says a “nationwide unemployment scam” is the reason many people have seen their payments frozen.
“They were having identification issues and needed three documents for identification,” Christopher Pynn of Lowell said he was told in late November after his unemployment account was placed under a hold.
“I immediately filled it out,” Lucinda Rivera of Orlando, Florida, said. She works for a Massachusetts-based transportation company. “I submitted my passports, Social Security card.”
Their story is the same — two people already receiving Massachusetts unemployment benefits since the pandemic took hold and took their jobs — now, unsure when they’ll get their next check.
Pynn typically works Warp & Weft, a restaurant and bar with live music and comedy performances. He’s had to collect unemployment on and off since March, as the restaurant closed, reopened, then hibernated for the winter. That was — until November 24, when he noticed his account was put on hold.
“They were waiting for somebody to look at it, which could take ‘a week to two months,’” he said he was told by the state’s unemployment insurance office. “And I just thought to myself, ‘I just can’t wait that long. There’s no way anybody can wait that long, especially somebody who lives paycheck to paycheck.’”
Pynn was able to get the money he was due just before Christmas Eve, after reaching out to his state representative, Thomas Golden, who connected him with the right people to speed up the process. A representative from Golden’s office told WBZ they have received numerous calls from constituents dealing with similar holds on their accounts, going weeks without pay.
“You’re going into your savings, to say the least,” Rivera said. She, too, has collected since March because her transportation company is based out of Massachusetts. Her account was put on hold at the end of November — and she hasn’t seen a check since despite being laid off.
Rivera is not alone. She says a Facebook group of more than 100 coworkers is dedicated to talking exclusively about their challenges with the Massachusetts unemployment system.
The state said the delay is due to a national unemployment scam. Investigators have recovered more than $240 million in fraudulent payments. In a statement in early December, the Executive Office of Labor and Workforce Development said, “In order to ensure the integrity of the unemployment system, DUA is continuing to apply enhanced identity verification measures that may temporarily delay the payment timeframe for some unemployment claims in Massachusetts.”
Pynn and Rivera — plus several others who did not do on-camera interviews — told WBZ it’s not just about the delay in payment but a delay in information. They say the unemployment office is nearly impossible to reach by phone. “You go through all the prompts, and then it hangs up on you,” Pynn explained. “It prompts you to do certain things, then it says, ‘Our call center is busy right now, please try your call again later,’ and hangs up.”
Rivera said she had some luck calling first thing in the morning when the department opened after a minimum of a 15-minute wait.
When asked about the delay in calls, Governor Charlie Baker told WBZ, “I know what the average speed to answer the department of unemployment assistance is, and it’s under a minute, so when you say to me that there’s all kinds of people who can’t get through, I have a really hard time reconciling that with the information I have.”
“He couldn’t be more wrong, and to say that people get through within a minute — he couldn’t be more wrong if he tried,” Pynn said.
Being without funds for more than a month is tough already, he explained, but even harder leading up to Christmas, which is why he was so relieved when his state representative helped push his case through.
“Through even the hard times, you have that happiness and joy of the season, but [this situation] takes away from that because you’re wondering how am I going to pay my rent, pay my bills, is my cell phone going to get turned off?”
While Pynn did get his check, Rivera is still waiting for hers. When WBZ-TV asked Governor Baker about the issues with the system during one of his press conferences, he encouraged anyone who is struggling to resolve an issue with unemployment to contact his constituent services department directly.