CHAMPAIGN – The Illinois Department of Employment Security has started checking the roll of people receiving unemployment benefits to find those who might be ineligible because they're in jail.
The department said Tuesday that its checks have so far turned up 420 inmates collecting unemployment, although it's not clear how many were jailed just briefly during that period and potentially still eligible to receive the benefits.
The department started the checks two weeks ago after a state legislator from southern Illinois, Rep. John Cavaletto, said he'd heard about potential fraud among inmates.
"We really don't have a firm sense of the scope of this issue," department spokesman Greg Rivara said. "There have been some incidences in the past that we were aware of where individuals were incarcerated and still were receiving benefits."
The department won't know for several weeks how many ineligible jail inmates are collecting unemployment, Rivara said.
Comparing a list of almost 70,000 people locked up in county jails and, in some cases, state prisons with the list of roughly 253,000 people collecting unemployment, the department found the 420 people receiving benefits who were behind bars sometime during the first two weeks of the program.
Now the department will check to see if they might have been only briefly locked up and were still eligible, or if they really weren't available to work, Rivara said. Availability to work is a key part of the criteria to determine unemployment eligibility.
Many state prison inmates, such as those who've been in prison for long periods or are serving life sentences, are not part of the checks because they don't meet other unemployment criteria checked during the application process such as recent employers, Rivara said.
Cavaletto, a Republican from Salem, said a constituent pointed the potential problem at the Marion County Jail out to him. The jail is in Cavaletto's district.
"[Inmates] were calling the Employment Security and ... telling them 'I was out looking for a job and couldn't find one,'" Cavelloto said.
People collecting unemployment benefits have to certify every two weeks that they're still eligible, Rivara said. That includes showing they're available to work and looking for work.
Rivara wasn't sure why the agency hadn't previously cross-checked lists of inmates with unemployment recipients.
Department Director Jay Rowell has been pushing to save money by cutting fraud, among things, Rivara said. The department now has two lawyers from the attorney general's office working on fraud issues full time, Rivara said.
No one knows how much money might be saved by preventing ineligible jail inmates from collecting unemployment. But Cavaletto said given the state government's multibillion-dollar budget deficit, it's well worth a look.
"We're going to have to go back and look at the fraud here," he said.
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