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Pandemic Fuels An Explosion Of Need For Unemployment Insurance And A Wave Of Fraud

Matt Slocum

On today’s program: Unemployment fraud has become a business, according to investigative reporting from ProPublica, which found users on Telegram selling “sauces” to help scammers defraud state unemployment systems, including the commonwealth’s; in light of the county considering a Westmoreland Trail to the Great Allegheny Passage connection, a look at the history of Turtle Creek, a tributary of the Monongahela River where remains of plants that supported the region’s steel industry are still visible; and a reflection on Skibo Gym, one of Carnegie Mellon University’s oldest buildings, which is about to undergo construction.

Widespread unemployment fraud leaves labor departments scrambling
(0:00 - 10:00)

As unemployment surged in the country, people urgently needed assistance. Thus far in 2021, the state has seen residents file more than 750,000 unemployment claims.

During the pandemic, there also came a wave of people filing fraudulent claims.

“People using stolen identities to basically file fake claims in either your name, your neighbor’s name or someone else who’s had their identity leaked and put out for sale somewhere on the dark webs,” explains Cezary Podkul, investigative reporter at ProPublica who’s covering this widespread issue.

Podkul says it’s not clear exactly how much money states have lost to fraud, but he reported the Office of Inspector General estimates at least $87 billion could be paid out by September.

He found some were creating illegal businesses on the social media site Telegram by selling directions to help others defraud state unemployment systems.

“When people talk about fraud, they talk about three things: the means, the motive and the opportunity, and it’s really just the confluence of all three here,” says Podkul.

Now states are trying to shore up their systems to prevent fraud.

Podkul says aging technology created problems for all states, including Pennsylvania, but some easy ways to reduce fraud include better identity verification and database cross checks, to ensure people aren’t filing for unemployment in multiple states at once.

Last month the state Department of Labor and Industry rolled out a long-anticipated update to its unemployment filing system, which it says prevented a billion dollars from being paid out to fraudsters.

Turtle Creek Valley’s historical sites may become more accessible to pedestrians
(10:07 - 18:07)

The Great Allegheny Passage was completed in Pittsburgh in 2013 and, by connecting with the C&O Canal Towpath in Maryland, provides a link between Pittsburgh and Washington, D.C.

Now Allegheny County is conducting a feasibility study on what it would take to connect the Westmoreland Heritage Trail and the Great Allegheny Passage along Turtle Creek Valley.

The land surrounding Turtle Creek, a Monongahela River tributary, is home to historic development.

“It’s Braddock’s trail, Braddock’s path coming through,” says Ron Baraff, director of historic resources and facilities at Rivers of Steel. “From Braddock Field Road, which used to go from Turtle Creek all the way into the city of Pittsburgh, to Westinghouse. That whole empire was right there in Turtle Creek, a lot of the buildings are still there.”

The area is also home to the Carrie Blast Furnaces and Edgar Thomson Works, and once supported other smaller foundries, steel and iron facilities.

“This region’s heyday really was 1890s through the 1950s,” says Baraff. “It’s at that point that you start to see movement away from Braddock and Turtle Creek, and people moving more to suburban regions and the industry starting to fail and leave.”

The industry began failing after World War II when veterans and others were able to “move away from the shadow of the mill,” says Baraff. “Once that starts happening, there’s a direct effect on the mainstreets of these towns.”

Should a trail be constructed along Turtle Creek, Baraff anticipates the region would see a boost to the local economy.

Skibo Gym is getting an update nearly a century after it was built
(18:13 - 22:30)

Carnegie Mellon University’s Skibo Gym is one of the oldest intercollegiate buildings in the country. The Glenn Miller Orchestra and Louis Armstrong performed on its stage and Hillary Clinton held a presidential campaign rally there. But as 90.5 WESA’s Margaret Fleming reports, after a century, Skibo Gym will undergo major construction.

The Confluence, where the news comes together, is 90.5 WESA’s daily news program. Tune in weekdays at 9 a.m. to hear newsmakers and innovators take an in-depth look at stories important to the Pittsburgh region. Find more episodes of The Confluence here or wherever you get your podcasts.

Kevin Gavin is the host of WESA's news interview program "The Confluence." He is a native Pittsburgher and served as news director for 90.5 WDUQ for 34 years. Since the sale of the radio station by Duquesne University to Pittsburgh EPM, Inc. (now Pittsburgh Community Broadcasting Corp.), he served as Executive Producer of Special News Projects prior to being named as host of "The Confluence" five years ago. kgavin@wesa.fm
Marylee is the editor/producer of The Confluence, the daily public affairs show on WESA. She got her start in journalism at The Daily Reveille and KLSU while attending Louisiana State University. She took her passion for audio journalism to UC Berkeley's graduate program and worked in public radio at WPR in Madison, WI, and WOSU in Columbus, Ohio.
Laura Tsutsui is a producer for The Confluence, WESA's morning news show. Previously, she reported on the San Joaquin Valley with the NPR affiliate station in her hometown of Fresno, California. She can be reached at ltsutsui@wesa.fm.
Rebecca Reese is a production assistant for The Confluence.
Eoin is a production assistant for The Confluence and a senior at NC State University studying political science. He got his start in broadcasting at WKNC, NC State's college radio station. When he's not working, he enjoys hiking, surfing, and listening to music.
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