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California’s Crackdown On Unemployment Claims Keeping Immigrants From Their Promised Benefits

Said Abiyow, the Executive Director of the Somali Bantu Association of Americ...

Photo by Matthew Bowler

Above: Said Abiyow, the Executive Director of the Somali Bantu Association of America, helps members of the African community translate public service announcements and access social services. Pictured on November 19th, 2020.

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As the state combats rampant fraud, some people with legitimate claims are finding themselves locked out of their accounts. Immigrant communities are suffering the most.

Aired: November 30, 2020 | Transcript

On a corner of University Avenue in City Heights, Ethiopian immigrant Gere Hido relays his frustration in just trying to get access to his unemployment benefits. His account has been locked since the middle of October, when Bank of America labeled his claim as possibly fraudulent.

“When I call (Bank of America), they say they will send me another card. When they send me a card, the situation is the same. I call again, they transfer me to three people, the last one says ‘please wait your call is important to us, you have to wait,’” he told KPBS. “I wait — one hour, 15 minutes, then they hang up.”

In the meantime, he’s had to rely on the kindness of his friends and relatives just to keep up with the rent. He immigrated to San Diego from Ethiopia 20 years ago. For the past 16 years, he’s been a shuttle driver at the San Diego airport, but like so many others in the local tourism business, he’s been out of work since the pandemic hit in March.

Reported by Max Rivlin-Nadler , Video by Matthew Bowler

Hido quickly qualified for unemployment. The state benefits, plus added funds from the federal CARES Act, were a huge help to his family of four. But then on October 15th, his account was nearly zeroed out — $4,200 had vanished.

“When I went there to take my money for rent, I don’t see the money,” he said.

He went to a nearby Bank of America branch to try to settle the matter, but employees there said there was nothing they could do. This was something he’d have to take up with the state’s unemployment system.

Despite call after call to the Bank of America customer service line and to the state Employment Development Department (EDD), which handles unemployment claims, hasn’t even been able to get the process started. And with Thanksgiving approaching, he’d begun to lose hope of ever having access to the promised benefits he’d worked so hard for.

But Hido isn’t alone in this struggle. Possibly thousands of people with legitimate unemployment claims have found their accounts frozen as the state works to cut down on fraud.

Photo caption:

Photo by Matthew Bowler

Gere Hido, who has been battling to get back access to his unemployment benefits since mid-October, on a corner in City Heights on November 19th, 2020

California’s fraud issues are unusual — it’s one of only three states in the county, and the largest by far, that doesn’t directly deposit unemployment insurance payments to people’s bank accounts. Instead, it sends them debit cards from Bank of America.

This is to make sure people without bank accounts can still access their unemployment benefits. But the cards have proven susceptible to theft and skimming devices. They rely on outdated technology and don’t have security chips on them, which have become the industry standard over the past decade.

Criminals have taken full advantage and the EDD now has a huge backlog of fraud claims to flag and investigate. Just last week, state prosecutors announced a massive scam in which EDD paid upwards of $1 billion in illegal benefits to state prisoners and their associates.

That’s led to a policy of freezing people’s accounts if they appear suspicious, and letting account holders sort through the bureaucracy of appealing and reopening their claims.

For immigrants like Hido, and laid off housecleaner Rahma Ibrahim, who’s from Somalia and speaks limited English, that bureaucracy can be daunting.

Ibrahim told KPBS that for the last three months she’s been told by the bank to take up her case with the state, and vice versa.

Ibrahim and Hido depend on the work of the Somali Bantu Association of America. From its office on University Avenue in City Heights, Executive Director Said Abiyow has helped thousands of African immigrants navigate the state’s social safety net. The organization also runs both rent relief programs and food distribution several times a week.

On a recent Thursday, Abiyow scrolled through a blizzard of Whatsapp messages he’d sent that day — providing updates on closures, safety guidelines and how to sign up for unemployment.

“They don’t speak any English,” Abiyow says about the people he serves. “They were having difficulty connecting the resources valuable for them. They don’t know the updates of the coronavirus. We’re trying to provide updates over Whatsapp. They don’t even use social media, so this is the way we make sure we’re getting to them.”

He translates government materials from English to one of the many languages or dialects spoken by the African diaspora that has settled in City Heights.

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But even with Abiyow and his organization’s help, Hido and Ibrahim still hit dead ends after weeks of trying. Bank of America and the state didn’t restore their accounts after countless attempts, claiming they still hadn’t been cleared of fraud.

Rancho Penasquitos resident Iain Mack is in the same boat. An independent contractor in the entertainment industry, he’s spent the past two months trying to get his account, with over $8,000 in it, restored. On Zoom, he holds up a stack of documents he’s compiled as part of trying to get back into his account.

One time, he spent over five hours on hold with a Bank of America representative.

As a native English speaker whose made it his full-time work to restore his unemployment claim, he understands he’s one of the more fortunate people stuck in this bureaucratic mess.

“The people who have rent to pay, the people who car payments, the people who have four or five kids. Why should they have to go through that through no fault of their own?” He asks.

In a statement, a Bank of America spokesperson told KPBS that it is working with law enforcement to crack down on fraudulent claims and that anyone with a legitimate claim impacted by these efforts should contact them immediately.

But for a lot of people just trying to keep a roof over their head this holiday season, navigating the bureaucracies of a massive corporate bank and an overwhelmed government agency is nearly impossible.

Editor’s Note: After KPBS contacted Bank of America about these claims, Ian Mack and Rahma Ibrahim’s funds were restored. The bank tells KPBS it has also begun the process of working on Gere Hido’s claim.

Listen to this story by Max Rivlin-Nadler.

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Photo of Max Rivlin-Nadler

Max Rivlin-Nadler
Speak City Heights Reporter

opening quote marksclosing quote marksI cover City Heights, a neighborhood at the intersection of immigration, gentrification, and neighborhood-led health care initiatives. I'm interested in how this unique neighborhood deals with economic inequality during an unprecedented global health crisis.

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