Unemployment numbers are decreasing in Arkansas after reaching record numbers in the early months of the pandemic. However, state officials say they are seeing increasing amounts of unemployment insurance fraud.
Following the declaration of an emergency due to COVID-19, unemployment levels in Arkansas and across the United States soared. According to graphs provided by Hutchinson, there were only 1,382 unemployment claims for the week beginning March 14. This number quickly rose to 9,275 claims for the week of March 21 and then increased to 27,756 for the week of March 28.
Initial unemployment claims reached its peak with 62,086 claims for the week beginning April 4. Since that week, the initial unemployment claims have steadily decreased before leveling off in May.
“As restrictions were put into place, we closed more things down, it skyrocketed. Then, as we gradually started returning to people, the initial claims have continued on being reduced. It’s flat now. It’s very consistent on about 9,990 or close to 10,000,” Hutchinson said.
In terms of continued unemployment insurance claims, the state’s numbers are also beginning to decrease. Arkansas Department of Commerce Secretary Mike Preston said the state hit its peak on May 9 with 122,522 continued claims, which are gradually declining. Currently, Arkansas has 97,966 continued claims.
“Each week, we continue to see a decrease in those numbers,” Preston said. “That’s good. We’re heading in the right direction. We still obviously have a lot of work to do.”
In addition, Preston said that 43,000 individuals have been approved for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance funding, with approximately $330 million disbursed to date. “We are seeing those funds move, and hopefully, that’s getting into the pockets of those who need it so desperately,” he said.
As the number of unemployment claims declines, the Department of Commerce is turning its attention to unemployment insurance fraud. Preston noted that there has been an “uptick in fraudulent activity” at the state and national level.
“This has certainly taken precedence for our Department of Workforce Services. Arkansas has historically been very low in terms of our fraudulent cases over the years in relation to unemployment insurance. But when you see a pandemic like this hit, you saw the graphs that the governor showed earlier. This was a spike in the claims and moving as quickly as we can to get funds out, it leaves an opportunity for those who would want to come in and take advantage of the system,” he said.
According to Preston, this fraud is being accomplished through identify theft that can occur through retail breaches or other methods. In response, the department has been locking down accounts suspected of fraudulent activity for investigation.
The Department of Commerce has flagged approximately 14,000 accounts within the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program and roughly 6,000 within traditional unemployment assistance. Preston noted that these are not necessarily cases of fraud but have been flagged for further investigation.