Elinor Smith

HELENA (UM Legislative News Service) -- The Senate Business, Labor and Economic Affairs Committee heard testimony Wednesday on a bill that aims to make sure people who are found guilty of unemployment fraud pay the state back.

Rep. Jennifer Lynch, D-Butte, sponsored House Bill 142 and it comes after a dramatic increase in unemployment fraud over the last several years.

“It addresses barriers and adds simplicity and clarity to criminal code to ensure that all parties involved in UI fraud litigation have a clear understanding of the charges being brought against the defendant and penalties that they face if found guilty,” Lynch said. 

Chief Legal Counsel for the Department of Labor and Industry Quinlan O’Connor supports the bill and said HB 142 would clarify expectations for both prosecution and defense during fraudulent unemployment trials. 

“Unemployment insurance fraud for the last number of years, and particularly recently, has been a big deal in Montana and across the country,” O’Connor said.  

Unemployment claims skyrocketed during the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic as businesses across the state shuttered their doors and employees went into lockdown.

The state reached its peak number of unemployment benefits claimed on April 18, 2020, when about 83,000 Montanans claimed unemployment. That’s roughly 15% of Montana’s workforce and a 510% increase in unemployment claims from the roughly 13,000 Montanans claiming unemployment about a month earlier, shortly after former Gov. Steve Bullock declared Montana in a state of emergency

According to a notice released by the Department of Labor and Industry on June 11 of 2020, the agency prevented over $220 million of fraudulent unemployment claims between April 28 and June 11 alone in 2020. 

The number of Montanans claiming unemployment benefits has evened out since its spike during the COVID-19 pandemic, and it rests just below ten thousand recipients as of January 7 of this year.

There were no opponents of the bill and the committee did not take immediate action. 

Elinor Smith is a reporter with the UM Legislative News Service, a partnership of the University of Montana School of Journalism, the Montana Broadcasters Association, the Montana Newspaper Association and the Greater Montana Foundation.