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

 November 30, 2020 at 5:00 AM PST

San Diego county health officials reported 1066 new COVID-19 infections yesterday, with nine new community outbreaks and no new deaths. Some California counties announced more restrictions on Saturday with the hope of forestalling a hospital crisis. San Francisco is joining a statewide curfew and Silicon Valley is banning all high school, collegiate and professional sports. They’re also imposing a quarantine for those traveling into the region from more than 150 miles away. Meanwhile, Top Infectious Disease expert Dr. Anthony Fauci says the US may see “a surge upon a surge” of coronavirus in the weeks after Thanksgiving. He spoke on Sunday. He also says he does not expect current public health orders about social distancing to be relaxed before Christmas. Though retailers have taken a hit during the pandemic, many are still participating in Cyber Monday. In fact, the National Retail Federation expects holiday sales to be better than last year as many stores are hoping to attract most of their customers online. Some business experts say with the pandemic forcing people away from spending on travel and concerts, they may be willing to spend more on gift giving. It’s Monday, November 30th. This is San Diego News Matters from KPBS News.... I’m Anica Colbert. Stay with me for more of the local news you need to start your day. The pandemic has led to millions of unemployment claims across the state -- but the system in California is vulnerable. Unemployment payments here are made through Bank of America debit cards ---- there is now a massive backlog of fraud claims under investigation. But, as KPBS reporter Max Rivlin-Nadler tells us, those efforts have ensnared San Diego residents with legitimate unemployment claims -- leaving many of them fighting for their benefits for months. Gere Hido immigrated to San Diego from Ethiopia twenty years ago…. For the past 16 years, he's been a shuttle driver at the San Diego airport….. When the pandemic hit in March, thousands of flights were canceled….. And Hido was soon furloughed. They say if the situation come back, they will hire me again. Hido was able to get unemployment a month after that. For a household including his wife and four school-aged children, the money from unemployment was huge. But in the middle of October, his account was almost zeroed out. $4200 dollars were gone. When I went there to take my money for rent, I don't see the money. He's been fighting to get his money back ever since…. When I call, they say will send me another card. When they me a card, the situation is the same. I call again, they transfer me to three people, the last one says "wait your call is important to us, you have to wait." I wait, one hour, fifteen minutes, then they hang up. Despite call after call to Bank of America, he's been unable to get the process even started…. California is one of only three states in the county that doesn't directly deposit unemployment insurance payments to people's bank accounts. Instead, it sends them debit cards from Bank of America…. These debit cards were chosen as a way to make sure people without bank accounts could still access their unemployment benefits…. But the cards have proven susceptible to theft and skimming devices. they don't have security chips on them ... And then there are fraudulent claims being made to the state's Employment Development Department, which administers the state's unemployment system…. and authorizes the amounts on the debit cards. Widespread fraud for a state with emptying coffers means the state has been cracking down on any accounts that look fraudulent. But working immigrants like Hido, and laid off housecleaner Rahma Ibrahim, who's from Somalia, have found their accounts zeroed out as well. In Somalii She said for the last three months she's been told by the bank to take up her case with the state… and vice versa… Navigating the various help numbers as well as a major bank and an overwhelmed state bureaucracy is difficult even for people with English as a first language…. So 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….. They don't speak any English. 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. He translates government materials from English to one of the many languages or dialects spoken… But even with their help, Gere Hido and Rahma Ibrahim have still hit dead ends. Bank of America and the state didn't restore their accounts after countless attempts… claiming they haven'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 thousands of dollars in it, restored. He reads a letter he was sent. Your claim has been closed because we believe the account or the claim has been subject to fraud or suspicious activity. if you have any questions, please call us at He even spent over five hours on hold one time. The people who have rent to pay, the people who car payments, the people who have four-five kids, not every day can you go to a food bank. Why should they have to do that through no fault of their own? 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. For a lot of people just trying to keep a roof over their head this holiday season, that task can not only be daunting, but near impossible. Max Rivlin-Nadler, KPBS News. That was KPBS’ Max Rivlin-Nadler. After KPBS contacted Bank of America about these claims, Ian Mack and Rahma Ibrahim's funds were restored. The bank says it began the process of working on Gere Hido's claim. On November 3rd, San Diego city voters overwhelmingly passed Measure B, which established a new and more robust police review commission. Starting today (monday) the public will have a chance to weigh in on how that commission should operate. KPBS’ Claire Trageser reports. The commission will have independent oversight of the police department, including subpoena power, and the freedom to conduct its own investigations into police shootings and other use of force incidents. But first the San Diego City Council must draft and pass an ordinance that will lay out how the commission works, how many members it will have and how those members will be chosen. "Now it's up to the City Council to write and pass an ordinance that builds a commission in the spirit of that measure." Patrick Anderson, a member of the existing community review board, will host the meetings. "When the ordinance rolls out, we want to know, is the community proud of that, does it have faith that the Commission on Police Practices that's put in place actually represents Measure B." Anderson invited representatives from more than 100 community groups to be part of the roundtable. The city will also live stream the discussion on its YouTube page Monday at 4 pm, and any member of the community can email in questions and comments to CPPOutreachCommittee@gmail.com. That was KPBS Investigative reporter Claire Traegeser. It's been a record-breaking year for wildfires in California. The full cost of the Valley fire for San Diego East County residents who lost their homes is still being determined. inewsource reporter Camille von Kaenel explains. VON KAENEL: When the Valley Fire started getting close to Eileen Menzies' home near Jamul in early September, the 78 year old knew it was different. MENZIES: The other fires in the past we've always had a fire engine in everybody's driveway and we had our property protected, but like I said it's never crested the hill before and this time it crested the hill. So I figured this one was going to be pretty serious. VON KAENEL: Her home was one of 30 destroyed in the 16,000 acre fire. Now, local and federal officials are negotiating who will pay for what. The costs are big. Nearly 7 million dollars. That includes damage to public property and a program to help clear debris. The to-do list for residents is long: Figure out insurance, if they had it. Apply for federal aid. Get power and water restored. VON KAENEL: In Menzies' case, she spends her days (AMBI fade in) sorting through the rubble. MENZIES: I'm basically the only one out here working to clear the land. You know, everybody's just kind of been in shock. Menzies has insurance - but it may not be enough. For now, she and her neighbors are just trying to recover. For KPBS, I'm inewsource reporter Camille von Kaenel. That was inewsource reporter Camille von Kaenel. inewsource is an independently funded, nonprofit partner of KPBS. Auditors from the State Department of Finance announced last week that the California Geologic Energy Management Division didn't follow their own rules with regards to oil exploration permits. In 2019, hundreds of improper permits for new oil wells were issued. Hollin Kretzmann is an attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity. He says the permits are alarming, as the governor recently made announcements about moving away from fossil fuels. "Why are we issuing new permits and approving new injection projects to get more oil out of the ground, when we should be going the exact opposite direction?" Because of the holidays, officials weren't available for comment but a spokesperson said in an email that the agency will submit an action plan of how it will remedy the issues within 60 days. A letter released last week (Nov.24th) by the state agency that governs utilities, says PG&E will be held accountable to fulfill its wildfire safety plans. CapRadio’s Ezra David Romero reports. The letter came from the president of the California Public Utilities Commission. She said the agency will pursue “enhanced oversight,” which could include a state takeover, if PG&E doesn’t live up to its wildfire safety commitments. Her staff is reviewing filings regarding deficiencies in vegetation management and recordkeeping. PG&E’s equipment started a number of wildfires including the 2018 Camp Fire that killed 86 people. The company did not respond for comment by Friday, but told other news sources it is taking the feedback seriously. In Sacramento, I'm Ezra David Romero. “Collective” is the official Romanian entry for the best Foreign film Oscar. KPBS film critic Beth Accomando says it's rare for a documentary to be submitted in this category. But, she says, this is not your typical documentary…. Collective begins with a fire that broke out in a Bucharest nightclub in 2015… But the fire that resulted in dozens of deaths is just the catalyst for a gripping documentary that plays out more like a thriller or perhaps a Romanian All the President's Men. In the aftermath of the tragedy a reporter discovers information exposing a seriously corrupt health system that was killing patients while rewarding many managers for turning a blind eye. In riveting detail the film takes us from the initial tragedy to the optimism inspired by a persistent team of journalists and a well-intentioned health minister but then it crushes our hopes as money and greed prove resistant to change. Make an effort to check this one out. Beth Accomando KPBS News. That was KPBS film critic Beth Accomando. Collective is now streaming through Digital Gym Cinema. Coming up on the podcast…...taking a train from Los Angeles or North County to the San Diego Convention center could be possible within five years. We’ll have an interview from the head of transit in North county next just after this break. Within the next five years, it may be possible to ride a train from the North County to the San Diego Convention Center. It’s part of a new plan to extend the Coaster beyond the current terminus at the Santa Fe depot. The so-called LOSSAN rail corridor through los angeles and san diego is the second busiest rail corridor in the country. If extended, people from LA or North County could buy a ticket to the Padres game, or ComiCon and arrive on the doorstep of those events by train. Tony Krantz is chair of the North County Transit District. He spoke to KPBS Midday Edition co-host Alison St. John about the new plans. Here’s that interview….. That was Tony Krantz, chair of the North County Transit District, speaking with KPBS Midday Edition co-host Alison St. John. That’s it for the podcast today. Thanks for listening and have a great day

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California is combating rampant fraud in unemployment claims, But some people with legitimate claims - especially those in immigrant communities - are finding themselves locked out of their accounts. Also, city voters approved a new Commission on Police Practices -- today will be the first chance for the public to have a voice on how that commission will work... And, from our inewsource partners: Nearly three months after the Valley Fire erupted near Jamul, the people who lost homes and businesses are clearing debris off their land, negotiating with insurance companies if they were insured and applying for federal aid.