RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) – The state auditor says she’s still concerned there’s not a “definitive plan” to correct issues in paying unemployment benefits to people after the massive surge in claims during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

State lawmakers questioned State Auditor Beth Wood (D) and Antwon Keith, the head of the Division of Employment Security, this week about Wood’s findings in audits she released in 2022. 

Wood’s team reported that during a five-year period from 2016 to 2021, the agency had an improper payment rate of 17.6% on average. In addition, her office found that during the period stretching from Jan. 2020 to Mar. 2021, the state did not issue about $438 million in a timely fashion. 

Her office made several recommendations “to make sure that when the next crisis hits, and it will, and unemployment rates go up, that people will be able to get that first-time unemployment check without all the issues they had during COVID.” 

Pandemic the start of concerns

Kieth told lawmakers DES faced an unprecedented situation when the pandemic began and the unemployment rate spiked as Gov. Roy Cooper (D) ordered various businesses to close. 

Many people who were suddenly out of work reported issues trying to apply for unemployment benefits both online and by phone.  

Since then, Keith said the agency has taken some steps to try to address issues that arose. Among them, DES is sending text notifications to people to update their information, redesigned the website to try to improve the user experience, implemented rules to try to better detect fraud and exploring more ways to implement artificial intelligence to reduce staff time in handling some tasks. 

But, he also noted that North Carolina is still not meeting federal benchmarks to pay people in a timely manner. Keith added no state in the southeast is doing that. 

Rep. George Cleveland (R-Onslow) asked if in the next year DES would be able to meet those standards. Keith replied, “I will not say that, Mr. Representative.” 

Auditor Wood sat behind Keith as he spoke to the House Oversight Committee, frequently shaking her head at some of the answers she heard. 

In an interview following the hearing, Wood said, “The exasperation, yes, is that I’m not sure the answers were definitive enough, that there’s a definite plan, and that we are constantly comparing ourselves to everybody else when we need to be worried about what can North Carolina give its citizens.” 

Keith noted DES has recouped over $130 million over the past three years amid reports of fraudulent payments being made to people. He said the agency continues to work with law enforcement on ongoing investigations. 

He added that the agency lost a significant number of employees in December 2022 and has struggled to replace them. 

“If we want to do more, it would be great to have a few more bodies,” he said.