How Bank of America helped fuel California’s unemployment meltdown

A CalMatters investigation reveals what went wrong with a Great Recession-era contract to digitize California’s unemployment payment system, leaving jobless workers out thousands of dollars and raising big questions about whether the bank did enough to stave off fraud and disclose financial gains.

For a brief moment this summer, Stephanie Moore thought she might finally see a glimmer of hope at the end of the coronavirus recession. Unemployment benefits provided a lifeline for the 38-year-old Los Angeles housekeeper to leave a bad relationship and rent an Airbnb while she looked for a job. But in early October, her state-issued Bank of America debit card balance plummeted from around $400 to negative $1,100 after a credit for fraudulent charges from months earlier was reversed without warning. 

So began her unofficial full-time job trying to get the money back.

“It’s kind of like a nightmare,” Moore said. “Every day I’m wondering what’s more important. Do I get on the phone with the bank and try again so I have a place to sleep tomorrow, or do I just accept that I’m going to be on the street and focus on my job search? Because you can’t do both.”

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For months, California’s Employment Development Department has attracted the ire of jobless workers and state lawmakers for a backlog of unpaid unemployment claims that peaked at 1.6 million. Now, Moore is among those entangled by potential security lapses and payment errors involving Bank of America, which since 2010 has had an exclusive contract to deliver state unemployment benefits through prepaid debit cards.

It’s a breakdown of the state’s job safety net that raises questions about the best way to get money into the hands of workers who desperately need it, since California is one of only three U.S. states that does not offer a direct deposit option, according to a CalMatters review of public documents. To this day, it’s not clear how much Bank of America has made from handling the bulk of the unprecedented $109 billion California has paid out in benefits since March. Lawmakers are examining the bank’s role in payment issues that began during a two-week identity-verification update, and whether the bank has provided adequate security for unemployment insurance money in the face of rampant fraud.