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Audit found Minnesota sent bonuses to frontline workers of 290 people who died • Minnesota Reformer

Just 60% of the more than 1 million people who received $487.45 for working on the front lines during the Covid-19 pandemic in Minnesota definitely deserved those bonuses, according to a state audit released Tuesday.

The Legislative Auditor’s Office estimates that 9% of recipients were ineligible for the payments, while for the rest it was simply unclear whether they should receive checks intended for nurses, first responders, prison guards, salespeople, janitors and other workers who they couldn’t stay at home during the pandemic.

The auditor analyzed just a fraction of Minnesota Frontline Worker Pay Program recipients and found numerous payments to suspicious claimants, including people using the same identification numbers, people providing out-of-state home and work addresses, and people who used “high-risk bank routing numbers.” “

Auditors also identified payments to 290 people who died before receiving the bonuses, including one person who died two years before the application deadline opened.

The report found that the Department of Labor and Industry, which oversaw the program, failed to adequately investigate patently fraudulent claims or ensure that contractors they hired retained enough data to assess payouts. The Treasury Department also did not verify the income of all applicants to ensure they qualified.

The report shows that about 85% of people who applied for the bonus received it.

“Remember that this program was established as a zero-sum game with a set amount of state funding — $500 million — to be distributed equally among all eligible applicants,” Judy Randall, legislative auditor, told the Legislative Audit Committee on Tuesday. “The more applicants were approved, the less each applicant received.”

Indeed, when lawmakers passed the funding almost unanimously, they believed workers would receive $750.

Fraud and waste have become the backbone of pandemic relief programs, from the Paycheck Protection Program to the federal Child Nutrition Program, as government agencies have been ordered to quickly disburse billions of dollars.

In the case of the frontline workers’ compensation program, a divided Legislature agreed to funding only after more than two years of the pandemic and wanted to get the money into workers’ bank accounts as quickly as possible.

Randall said her office reported its findings to the FBI, the Attorney General’s office and the Ramsey County prosecutor, and the report recommended that the state Department of Revenue try to recover the erroneous payments.

The Office of the Legislative Auditor is part of the legislative branch and typically focuses its criticism on state agencies that report to the executive branch. But their report on the frontline workers’ compensation program was a diplomatic rebuke to state lawmakers for the way the law was written.

For example, the program included requirements that could not be easily verified, such as people working in person and in close proximity to others, so the Department of Labor and Industry essentially had to take applicants’ word for it.

The auditors contacted employers of a small sample of recipients to check whether employees actually worked in person and in close proximity to others for at least 120 hours between March 2020 and June 2021, but in many cases employers either did not respond or said “I don’t know”.

“The overarching theme of the findings is that the problem is with the program itself, not with how it is implemented,” DLI Commissioner Nicole Blissenbach told the Legislative Audit Committee on Tuesday.

Blissenbach also noted in her department’s response that the auditor revised its report after the agency showed that some flagged claimants were indeed eligible for the benefit and concluded that they might be able to prove they qualify for benefits in the case of others if they had been given more time.

Sen. Ann Rest, DFL-New Hope, agreed that lawmakers took some of the blame and thanked auditors for not adopting “apologist opinions” on behalf of either state agencies or the Legislature.

“Where did this carelessness come from? It happened in the Legislature,” Rest said.

But Randall said even a flawed law doesn’t exempt state agencies.

“The law doesn’t say ‘definitely put an end to fraud,’ but I expect we all think we should try to stop fraud,” Randall said.