PHOENIX — After a breast cancer diagnosis in April, Victoria Burkhart had to leave her job for fear of COVID-19 exposure.
The Phoenix mom had been working graveyard shifts in order to spend her days caring for her husband who suffered a stroke in 2018.
"My family has overcome a lot of obstacles over the course of the past couple of years," Burkhart told ABC15.
When her husband could no longer work after the stroke, she says there were no immediate safety nets available to keep her family in their home.
"We ended up being evicted the day after Christmas and we became homeless," Burkhart said. "Our family was split apart. My son went to extended family. Thank God, they were there."
They moved into their current home a year ago and Burkhart says they were just getting back on their feet when she found out she had stage 3 invasive ductal carcinoma which would require a mastectomy, chemotherapy, and radiation. But this time, because of the coronavirus pandemic, she qualified for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA). It was created within the CARES Act to give unemployment benefits to gig, freelance, workers who make too little, and others that would not otherwise qualify who had a COVID19-related hardship. It is administered by the Arizona Department of Economic Security (DES).
For five months Burkhart says the weekly $240 payments combined with her husband's recently approved disability kept her family housed and paid for the organic diet and medications that insurance does not pay for.
"Now that I'm going through radiation, I need a certain special type of lotion to go on to the area so that I don't get badly burned," she said. "The skin rashes with the radiation things to help with mouth sores, special type of mouthwash, I mean things that aren't covered."
But she says her PUA payments abruptly stopped for the week of November 16.
"I'm just terrified we're gonna find ourselves back in this position again, where our family's going to be homeless, I've seen it happen," Burkhart said. "I've seen it happen."
Arizona's unemployment system has paid out more than $12.3 billion in benefits since the pandemic began. And potentially hundreds of millions of dollars have gone to fraudsters according to past interviews with DES Director Michael Wisehart. In August, the agency revealed that nearly 1 million claims had been under investigation for potential fraud. But as DES experiments with fraud mitigation tactics, legitimate claims are cut and internal policies are changed, often without the knowledge of call center agents who deal with claimants every day, according to a call center agent that spoke to ABC15 anonymously for fear of losing their job.
The whistleblower said the lack of information combined with poor training makes a bad situation even worse.
"This training for this should have been at least five or six weeks. It's two and a half days," the worker said. They were hired over the summer by DES call center contractor Valor IT and said it is not possible to keep up with the near daily changes in procedures.
The worker gave an example about claims that have a status of "active issue." It is a problem that ABC15 reported has been attached to thousands of PUA claims.
"We used to be able to say (to claimants) you have issues, this is what the issues are." But they said one day after spending an hour fixing a claimant's issues, they were told agents could no longer do that. "Oh, no, you can't do that anymore. We're not fixing any issues anymore. I said, what do you mean? You know, I just told that guy that I just fixed his issues."
ABC15 asked how often this person is given instructions, relays the information to claimants, and later find out the information was wrong.
"Too many times. Probably... I don't know, at least a couple of times a day, if not more," the person said.
According to a statement from DES spokesman Brett Bezio, the call center contractor previously, "implemented an abbreviated training when their staff were only involved in answering general inquiries, and your source may be harkening back to the early days of this partnership."
Training has since been increased to seven days with an additional two on the job according to the statement.
About informing workers of policy changes the statement said, "When policies or procedures are amended or created, the Department issues notification through regular emails which includes detailed information regarding any changes or actions the call center agents may need to take for claimants. Depending on the type of change, training may also be scheduled."
A very similar statement was sent from call center contractor Valor IT. That statement added, "We don’t think rules change daily but prior to implementing any new changes, agents are up-trained up to 16 hours per month per agent.
The worker said the most recent cycle of misinformation revolves around the identification needed to restore benefits after they have been abruptly stopped. "We can't accept the passport and the birth certificate anymore. Well, a lot of people didn't know that. So they're telling... you now the persons on the phone saying 'Well, was told I could use my birth certificate.' Well, I'm sorry-- that was the case, but it's not anymore. It was yesterday, but it's not today."
In October, DES announced in a press release that it hired ID.me to verify the identity of new PUA claimants. This worker says they did not find out about it until they tried to help a claimant but were prevented from going any further and prompted to refer the claimant to the ID.me website.
"I never got notice about the ID.me," the call center agent said. "I didn't know that. And I felt like an idiot."
In November it was announced, again via press release, that the use of ID.me would be required of all PUA claimants-not just initial claims-- in order to continue receiving benefits. Up to 300,000 claimants would be affected. In its early December rollout ABC15 reported that some claimants complained that the system would not accept their documentation.
The call center worker says most claimants have not been informed of issues with their claim and only find out after calling in when the payments abruptly stop. "They say, 'well, if I knew I had to do this, I would have done it already.'"
That is was happened to Burkhart.
"She (the call center agent she spoke to) told me it was because I needed to submit a photo of a current ID, front and back. And another photo of me doing a selfie holding up that ID," Burkhart said. "And the benefits were cut so I can call in to be informed? And she said yes."
Burkhart said the agent gave her an estimate of a 43 day wait before her benefits are restored.
While there is no way to know for sure what is going on with each case, we do know DES cut off an additional 43,000 suspected fraudulent accounts in September.
DES spokesman Brett Bezio said in a written statement that all 43,000 claimants were notified, "through their PUA portal, as well as an emailed notice, with instructions to begin the identity verification process," and that "less than 1% verified their identity. This low response rate supports the actions taken on suspected fraudulent claims."
Burkhart provided ABC15 an email from DES dated November 20--four days after her benefits were cut--that specifically states "You should not verify your identity prior to being asked to do so directly by DES," something Burkhart said did not happen until after her benefits were cut and she was forced to call the agency to find out what was going on.
"I can't wrap my mind around whose idea was not to cancel people's benefit to get them to call in," she said.
That could be a reason that phone calls continue to clog the system. DES says more than 11,000 calls are placed every day. Workers are only able to answer 4,000. And the calls that call center agents can't handle are often waiting for an adjudicator. They investigate issues with claims and allow people to get paid.
That is what another claimant, Larry Hudson of Glendale, told ABC15 he was waiting for. The father of three said he initially applied for PUA in April and submitted his identification verification to DES months ago. He received a total of $117 before his benefits were cut.
"They asked me to send them a copy of my driver's license, the pictures of me holding my driver's license. And they asked for a piece of mail with my name on it. I gave all three and about 10 weeks went passed, didn't hear from nobody. Anything. But I called them every day," he said.
When he gets through, he is told he needs an adjudicator to review his claim and to wait another week.
ABC15 has learned DES is having a hard time keeping the position staffed. Adjudicators have a 45% turnover rate according to the agency. That means nearly half the people hired to do the job leave.
While waiting, Hudson said he was kicked out of his apartment, and is and his children currently split time between his mother's home and an aunt's efficiency apartment.
"They want to move but I can't. And it hurts to tell my kids that we were gonna be here for another week. And we don't know when this week going to end," he said.
The whistleblower said Hudson's story sounds similar to many others that they hear every day.
"It breaks my heart," they said. "It's just not right. I mean, this is money that they deserve," the person said.
Burkhart's benefits were restored days after her interview with ABC15. They had been stopped for about 4 weeks. Hudson received a partial payment of back benefits. But days later, on December 16 both claimants got denial letters postdated for December 17. Both are appealing the decision.