SALEM, Ore. (AP) - When the recession hit Oregon, state unemployment workers were swamped, and managers decided to process claims quickly and clean up problems later.
As a result, the state of Oregon paid out more jobless benefits than it should have. In 2011, the overpayments amounted to $41 million, an audit has found.
The state has sent out letters asking beneficiaries to repay the money, Employment Department officials told the Salem Statesman Journal.
Spokesman Craig Spivey said Thursday that about $24 million has already been returned.
The audit released by the secretary of state's office Wednesday said some recipients shouldn't have been paid, and some were overpaid.
Before the recession, Oregon offered 26 weeks of benefits. During the height of the recession, two separate federal extensions allowed people to file for as many as 99 weeks.
People switching from one program to the next would sometimes be paid out of both, said Dee Anna Hassanpour, deputy administrator of unemployment benefits. The computer system wasn't set up to catch the double filing, she said.
She said the people who should not have been paid usually were people who had gone back to work but continued to file. Some were people who filled out their claim application wrong.
Gary Blackmer, leader of the audits division, said the overpayment claims accounted for about 1 percent of all unemployment claims overall.
Spivey said few of the claims were fraud, and the state's experience has been that most people repay benefits that they've gotten through a mistake.
Oregon had about 100,000 unemployment claims at the end of 2008, he said. The next month, the number leaped to 217,000, an extreme increase that no one handled well, he said.
"When all of this was going on, especially at the height of the recession, the question was: Do you stop everyone from getting paid or do you let them do it and then deal with it five months down the road?" Hassanpour said.
Laurie Warner, the department director, wrote a response to the audit that agreed with its findings and said the department changed its computer system to catch most of the problems. For example, she said, it will stop double payments automatically.
In addition, the department now has about 11 people reviewing claims instead of the four who were doing that work when the recession hit.
On Thursday, the state launched a new web-based system to communicate with employers in real time. It's cross-referenced with another national database showing when workers are hired at a new job.
Hassanpour said she thinks "it will significantly reduce" overpayments.
KATU News reporter Dan Tilkin contributed to this report.
Information from: Statesman Journal
Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.