By ROB MORITZ
Arkansas News Bureau
LITTLE ROCK — Arkansas’ overpayments of unemployment benefits totaled $45 million at the end of last fiscal year, an official of the state Department of Workforce Services said Wednesday.
The update was part of the agency’s review of a federal Labor Department report that said the state overpaid jobless benefits by $161 million over the past three years, a figure DWS spokeswoman Kim Friedman said was based on samples of files and did not include funds the department recovered.
Gov. Mike Beebe said Wednesday he directed DWS Director Artee Williams to find the problem, if there is one, and fix it.
Friedman said the $45 million figure "is a rolling number and represents one point in time, what the overpayment was at the end of the fiscal year."
She said agency officials are sifting through documents to determine the accuracy of the federal report.
The Labor Department analyzed about 450 cases in Arkansas in each of the three years studied, and the cases were randomly selected.
Williams said last week that nearly 3,900 initial unemployment claims were filed in Arkansas in the week ending Sept. 3.
Beebe said he met with Williams on Friday, the same day the Legislative Council questioned the Workforce Services director about the federal report.
"Number one, we’re trying to find out if the federal numbers are accurate," Beebe said. "Number two, if they are, how did it happen, and number three, what do you do about it? What is (Williams) going to do about it?"
Beebe said the federal sampling is not comprehensive and does not take into account any money the agency recovers from claimants who received payments in error.
The governor said DWS officials "strenuously try to collect" overpayments, noting that apparently in many cases they occur because claimants submit inaccurate information on claims or continue to receive jobless benefits when they go back to work.
"These people have to be pursued and the money gotten back because obviously it affects us all," Beebe said.
Friedman said DWS officials managed to track down and recover about $4.2 million in overpayments last fiscal year, about $4.5 million in fiscal 2010 and about $4.6 million in fiscal 2009.
According to Labor Department report, 63 percent of the improper payments made in Arkansas during the last three fiscal years occurred because the person receiving the benefit continued to receive them after he or she went back to work.
Last week, some lawmakers expressed frustration and some suggested stronger enforcement measures and stiffer penalties for improperly collecting unemployment benefits.
Sen. Jonathan Dismang, R-Searcy, suggested the state audit the state Unemployment Insurance Trust Fund, the pool of money from which jobless benefits are paid.
Williams said he was not opposed to a state audit.