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THE FINE PRINT

Healey criticizes Baker administration for lack of transparency on problems with unemployment aid

Democratic Attorney General Maura Healey says the administration of Republican Governor Charlie Baker needs to do a far better job of handling claims for unemployment assistance.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff/File

Attorney General Maura Healey on Monday blasted the Baker administration for not sharing with the public more details about how many people are going weeks without badly needed unemployment benefits as a result of a nationwide fraud scheme.

That scheme prompted the state Department of Unemployment Assistance last month to interrupt weekly payments to some claimants and to block the initial filings of others as it investigated.

But the Baker administration has refused to say how many people have been affected and what it is doing to fix the problem, even as hundreds of people have complained to Healey’s office.

“The Baker administration has given little information for people to understand what’s going on,” Healey said in an interview. “And clear and transparent information is vital to the public.”

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“It’s a failure to serve the people of this state,” she said. “What they are doing is not good enough. Government needs to do better.”

Healey said the fair labor hot line set up by her office for a range of labor-related topics has been dominated recently by calls about unemployment benefits.

Healey said she has heard directly from several people.

“They are stressed-out and desperate,” she said. “They need to pay for mortgages, rent, groceries. It’s heartbreaking.”

Healey said her office has raised these issues multiple times with the Baker administration, “and we have yet to see a comprehensive solution.”

Instead, she said, the administration has replied, “we’re working on it.”

The DUA declined to comment.

Governor Charlie Baker, at a recent press conference, responded to a question about delays in claimants receiving benefits by saying, “We know how important these benefits are, but we absolutely positively have to make sure that this money goes to the people it’s intended to go to, and not to these people who are trying to rip the system off.”

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“It does cost them, in some cases, days before we can get around to sending them the money, because we need to validate that they are who they say they are,” he said.

Massachusetts was one of about a dozen states hit by an identity theft and fraud scheme that federal officials say has been orchestrated by a Nigerian network of fraudsters.

Some victims learned of the scheme when they were notified by the state unemployment agency that their applications had been accepted and were being processed — even though they never filed any.

Still others who had lost their jobs and were anxious to seek unemployment aid had their applications blocked by the state’s computer system because a criminal had filed in their name first.

And some people who had made legitimate claims and were receiving benefits had them cut off with no notice. Some received various explanations, including the need for additional identification documentation, or no explanation at all.

Healey also criticized the DUA’s overall performance in handling more than a million claims filed since the pandemic began in March. Deluged with claims and dealing with a balky computer system that froze people out because of password problems or a first name deemed too long, some waited weeks for calls back from the DUA.

Since then, the number of employees has grown to 2,000 from 50, but people are still reporting problems.

One frustrated claimant said in a recent Globe story, “I called every day, but got nowhere. No updates, no call backs, nothing.”

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“The Baker administration must improve access to DUA so that people can get through to a live person who can help with their claim,” Healey said. “We are still seeing major problems, including long hold times, untrained staff, or people just not being able to get a live person at all.”

One woman told the Globe that she stayed on hold, waiting to get through by phone, for more than seven hours. The line went dead when the office closed for the day.

A Greater Boston Legal Services attorney who represents many clients in unemployment benefits disputes said, “I’ve been seeing a lot of delays, and our clients don’t get information about why. People need to be informed why.”

On June 11, a DUA spokesperson declined to provide the Globe with details of the scam, including how many people had been affected and what was being done, saying only that the agency was working with state and federal law enforcement agencies “on the investigatory and prevention responses necessary to combat this national unemployment fraud scheme.”

“DUA can assure that there is no evidence of a state data breach and protecting claimants’ information is our top priority,” it said.

Two weeks earlier, the Baker administration had offered its only other comment on the scam, saying simply that “large amounts of illegitimate” claims had been filed.

Healey said the administration was relying on “snail mail” to ask claimants whose benefits had been cut off to provide more personal identification. Her office has since offered advice on its office Web page.

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Got a problem? Send your consumer issue to sean.murphy@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @spmurphyboston.