Can you be unemployed and retired. . . and collect benefits for being both?
One New York woman who was laid off in 2009 after a 40-year career in philanthropy filed for unemployment while continuing to look for a new job. A year later at age 65 and jobless, she applied for Social Security retirement benefits. She now collects both a monthly Social Security check and weekly unemployment benefits totaling nearly $3,000 a month, and a pension she earned during her career.
With the nation’s fragile economy leaving millions of older workers unemployed, growing numbers of these Americans are double dipping-- collecting unemployment insurance (UI) benefits, which extend for 99 weeks and Social Security. Or, in the case of government workers, collecting unemployment and state, local, or federal pensions. Double dipping is not illegal. And many would feel like suckers if they didn't take advantage of all the benefits that are available to them through the Federal and state governments. But is this any way to run a country at a time of fiscal crisis?
As long-term unemployment sets records—6.2 million out of work for at least 27 weeks and 2 million jobless for more than 99 weeks—the line between unemployment and retirement is blurring. About 2.1 million of the nation’s 14 million unemployed are 55 or older, although this probably underestimates the number that have retired due to joblessness. Some are so desperate for income that they are turning to multiple benefit streams just to make ends meet. Others are simply taking advantage of cashing in on the extended unemployment benefits. But the ultra-generous length of UI payments may actually have backfired by extending joblessness, not just benefits, and ultimately fueling the so-called "jobless recovery...”
“There is no conflict between collecting a Social Security pension benefit and unemployment compensation at the same time as long as each agency is apprised of the income received from the other,” says James Cushing, a Pennsylvania lawyer specializing in unemployment compensation. A little more than half of the 14 million Americans officially counted as unemployed collect UI benefits, and about one-tenth of these are eligible for Social Security retirement benefits, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The federal-state UI program administered by the states, paid out more than $160 billion last year.
The ease of electronic filing for unemployment benefits has changed the game. Are people really looking for work when they click once on Monster.com to see if there's a job in their area of expertise? Although the software does ask whether one is receiving private pension income, the long lag time for agencies to crosscheck applicants’ income makes it possible for unemployed, retired Americans to draw significant benefits that may actually be a disincentive to finding work. Still, most of the UI system’s estimated $17 billion in annual fraud instead results from people who are working and claiming benefits.
The Entitlement Seduction
Americans typically turn to government benefits as their first recourse when times are tough. For example, many unemployed workers who exhaust their UI benefits file for disability. In fact, the number of beneficiaries of Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) has risen by 67 percent since 2000, even though the workforce has grown by only 10 percent. If you've been diagnosed with osteoarthritis, one of the most common conditions among people 55 and over, you can probably claim disability even though you're perfectly capable of walking, typing, and handling most non-physical jobs.
Although most experts doubt that UI abuse is widespread, Dalmer Hoskins, director of the program studies division at the Social Security Administration (SSA), said, “By the time that record gets to SSA, it could be a year or two. So there is room for fraud. It is then up to the UI system to go after them. But, if someone moves from state to state, I doubt how vigorously it can be tracked.”
The temptation to draw upon two or more benefit programs is particularly great for unemployed workers in their early-to-mid 60s. This calculus plays in the mind of Cindy White, a 60-year-old association management professional who has been out work and collecting unemployment since December 2009. “I’m too old to be hired and too young to be retired,” she said before a meeting of the 40-Plus group for older, long-term unemployed workers in Washington, D.C. “If I didn’t have enough current income I’d consider going on Social Security when I turn 62. When you hit 60, your options narrow so much.