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Recalling Pandemic Lessons on “Self-Certifying” Eligibility


February 29, 2024

Sometimes what is left unmentioned can be far more important than what is said.

A good example is obscure guidance issued last week by the US Department of Labor (DOL) encouraging workforce programs to allow beneficiaries to self-certify their eligibility. That guidance directly affects a handful of programs with limited funding that offer a variety of employment-related services. Naturally the department argues the changes would “reduce administrative barriers” to services to help struggling individuals prepare for work. Who could be against that?

But the guidance fails to mention the recent debacle when millions of individuals were allowed to similarly self-certify their eligibility for unemployment checks during the pandemic. Numerous expert reports—including a DOL report issued just six months ago—have highlighted that self-certification was a major cause of the loss of billions of dollars in pandemic unemployment benefits to fraud and abuse. To be clear, the latest guidance doesn’t revive self-certification for current or future unemployment checks. But policymakers should be on guard that this seemingly innocuous expansion in self-certification for minor workforce programs is not used to someday justify reviving the same policy for far costlier unemployment checks.   

What is self-certification, exactly? The most prominent recent example involves the temporary federal Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) program, which starting in April 2020 allowed its millions of claimants to self-certify that they were unemployed or unable to work due to various COVID-related reasons. In practice, as a DOL Inspector General report noted, claimants self-certified their eligibility “by checking a box next to a qualifying reason on the form submitted to state workforce agencies.”

Letting claimants “check a box” to confirm their eligibility for government payments opened the door wide for abuse, and identity thieves immediately exploited this loophole to claim PUA checks along with $600-per-week supplements paid at the start of the pandemic. The Inspector General issued early warnings about self-certification fraud, and state agencies administering PUA agreed that self-certification was the program’s top fraud vulnerability. In December 2020, Congress added new documentation requirements, but by then the damage was done. PUA was well on its way to making over $100 billion in improper payments, counting federal supplements paid to PUA recipients. That’s a significant share of all improper unemployment payments during the pandemic, which totaled between a current “low end” official estimate of $191 billion and the staggering $400 billion calculated by private experts.  

That catastrophe goes unmentioned in last week’s DOL guidance, which marks at least the third time since pandemic benefits ended that DOL has promoted self-certification, or what the agency now dubs “self-attestation,” in workforce programs. In October 2022, DOL encouraged agencies “to consider the impacts on equity and accessibility” when assessing “restrictions on the use of self-attestation” for validating workforce performance data. In March 2023, DOL stated that “self-attestation is an acceptable source of documenting almost all program elements” related to eligibility for one youth training program. Last week’s guidance promotes self-attestation in more workforce programs, noting that “In many situations, self-attestation is sufficient for both eligibility determination and data validation purposes.”

Agencies can still use official data to determine eligibility and track effectiveness. But it’s not hard to imagine workforce staff preferring to take claimants at their word, as DOL encourages, to “reduce administrative barriers” and promote “equity and accessibility.” Supporters initially promoted ready access to PUA benefits in much the same way. For example, an April 2020 article described the view of Julie Su, then California Labor Secretary and now Acting DOL Secretary, that PUA would “cut through a bunch of red tape” and ultimately allow “applicants to certify on their own that they meet the criteria for emergency benefits within 24 hours.”

Just six months ago, DOL issued a report quoting testimony from the Inspector General that “reliance solely on claimant self-certifications without evidence of eligibility and wages during the program’s first 9 months rendered the PUA program extremely susceptible to improper payments, including fraud.” Fortunately, there’s little risk of similar losses in the limited workforce programs directly affected by last week’s DOL guidance. Perhaps more “self-attestation” in these programs will yield notable improvements for program recipients. Here’s hoping that occurs.

But given huge recent taxpayer losses, one would expect DOL to make clear that its promotion of self-certification in workforce programs is in no way intended to justify ever reviving that policy for determining eligibility for unemployment checks. Yet DOL fails to connect those painfully obvious dots, leading one to question whether a broader agenda of normalizing self-certification beyond workforce programs may be afoot. Maybe that’s cynical or even a little conspiratorial. But taxpayers have hundreds of billions of reasons to be wary—and to insist that self-certification never returns as a means of determining eligibility for unemployment checks.