In the last two months, the number of people making new claims for unemployment insurance in Massachusetts has plummeted by almost 60 percent.
It is an impressive figure, a sign of a quickly recovering economy, but one that comes with a perplexing caveat from the state agency that administers unemployment benefits.
In each of its last eight weekly reports on unemployment claims, the state Department of Unemployment Assistance has included this two-sentence caution:
“Please note that due to a system processing error, initial claims filings for regular [unemployment insurance] for the current and prior week are estimated values and included here as reported to the [US Labor Department]. The corrected values will be provided when they become available.”
Estimated values? Corrected values? A system processing error? What does that mean? How accurate (or inaccurate) are the numbers being released?
The DUA won’t say, continuing its long-standing practice of refusing to answer questions about its operations.
A DUA spokesman on Wednesday did not response to a request for an explanation of the caveat.
On Thursday morning, the spokesman, after being asked again for an explanation, promised to “look into” it and “get back” to the Globe.
On Thursday evening, the DUA responded by citing “a technical issue,” without further description. It said the issue is causing no delay in the payment of benefits to claimants.
There is some precedent for “a system processing error.” When the fallout from the pandemic sparked massive layoffs last spring, the crush of new applications for unemployment nearly overwhelmed the DUA and its creaky computer system.
Many frustrated applicants complained of being stymied by computer glitches, including rampant problems trying to input passwords, income amounts, even names.
Complaints about glitches were soon replaced with complaints about delays in processing claims after Massachusetts became one of many states hit by a nationwide fraud scheme.
The DUA responded to the deluge of fraudulent claims by interrupting weekly payments to some claimants and blocking the initial filings of others as it investigated.
But the Baker administration released very little information about the extent of the scam or what it was doing about it, drawing a rebuke from Attorney General Maura Healey.
“The Baker administration has given little information for people to understand what’s going on,” Healey said in June. “And clear and transparent information is vital to the public.”
Healey said then that her office had heard complaints from hundreds of people either cut off from benefits or blocked from making new filings.
Governor Charlie Baker, at a press conference back then, said, “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.”
In November, Baker was again asked about new delays in processing benefits in response to a surge in fraudulent claims.
“There is a tremendous amount of bot-based fraud going on,” he said, referring to software programs that allow crooks to flood the system with claims using stolen personal information.
But when the Globe followed up on that comment with detailed questions, including about how fraud cases affected the weekly unemployment numbers being released by the DUA, the Baker administration fell silent.