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For many, fees cut jobless benefits

States use cards from such banks as US Bancorp and Bank of America to pay jobless benefits.

Charles Krupa/Associated Press

States use cards from such banks as US Bancorp and Bank of America to pay jobless benefits.

WASHINGTON — Jobless Americans are paying millions in unnecessary fees to collect unemployment benefits because of state policies encouraging them to get the money through bank-issued payment cards, according to a new report from a consumer group.

People are using the fee-heavy cards instead of getting their payments deposited directly to their bank accounts. That’s because states issue bank cards automatically, require complicated paperwork or phone calls to set up direct deposit, and fail to explain the card fees, according to a report issued Tuesday by the National Consumer Law Center, a nonprofit group that seeks to protect low-income Americans from unfair financial services products. An early copy of the report was obtained by the Associated Press.

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Until the past decade, states distributed unemployment compensation by mailing out paper checks. Some also allowed direct deposit. The system worked well for people who had bank accounts and could deposit the check without paying a fee. It also cost states millions of dollars each year to print and mail the checks.

Banks including JPMorgan Chase & Co., US Bancorp, and Bank of America Corp. seized on government payments as a business opportunity. They pitched card programs to states as a win-win: States would save millions in overhead costs because the cards would be issued for free. And people without bank accounts would avoid the big fees charged by storefront check cashers.

However, most of the people being hit with fees already have bank accounts. The bank-state partnerships effectively shifted the cost of distributing payments from governments to individuals. The money needed to cover those costs is deducted from people’s unemployment benefits in the form of fees.

Consumer advocates like the National Consumer Law Center are focused on ensuring access to the direct-deposit option so that people can avoid the card fees. The trouble, the new report says, is that many states make it difficult for people to sign up for direct deposit.

Banks make more money when more people use the cards. Some of their deals with states prevented states from offering direct deposit, or required states to promote the card program as a first option.

To cover the cost of issuing cards and running the programs, banks charge a plethora of fees, including charges for balance inquiries, phone calls to customer support, leaving an account inactive for a period of months, or making a purchase using a personal identification number.

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