New Oregon Law Okays Pocketing Other People’s Money

Even the most casual football-watcher has to have noticed the eye-catching ads run by a Fortune 100 company featuring small, courteous things done for others. The commercials portray people making split-second decisions to help someone or to fix a problem they didn’t cause. The ads end with: “Every day, millions of people choose to do the right thing,” and the tag line, “Responsibility―what’s your policy?”

The ads’ impact lies in an appeal to the obvious. You know what’s right, and you do it! Most people in America do what’s right every day.

It makes you happy to think about, doesn’t it?

What if people stopped doing the right thing, or it ceased to be socially and/or legally expected that most people do the right thing?

Things like returning what doesn’t belong to you―bills that flew out of someone’s wallet in front of you at a coffee counter, a package left on your porch that belongs three doors up, items for which you mistakenly weren’t charged at the store―or the state of Oregon’s overpayment on an unemployment check.

According to a November 8 article by Richard Read in The Oregonian, an Oregon state law passed in 2011 exempts some people who have received overpayments on their unemployment compensation from having to return the money.

In Oregon, state unemployment payment errors in the last three years alone add up to $392 million in lost unemployment insurance funds. This is $392 million paid to Oregonians who were not qualified to receive it, that could have been available today to pay other, qualified jobless Oregonians.

The unemployment insurance (UI) system is currently designed to pay new claimants as fast as possible, sometimes before having full information about their eligibility. The new overpayment waiver is meant for people who did not intend to claim benefits they were in fact not entitled to, rather than for those who commit fraud. But waiving the expectation that people return money that isn’t theirs (through deductions from their future benefits) undercuts a culture of responsibility and adds―however incrementally―to a culture of doing whatever you can get away with and pocketing the change.

From tracking down the owner of a wallet full of credit cards to teaching a younger person the importance of honesty, choices we make every day create the society we live in. The Oregon Employment Department should be held accountable for the hundreds of millions of dollars it has lost―money entrusted to it by employers and employees who pay for the UI safety net for qualified jobless Oregonians. The legislature should repeal the new UI overpayment law in the 2012 special session and focus on fixing an Employment Department missing almost $400 million in wrongly paid UI funds. Oregon needs both a more responsible Employment Department and citizens who still choose to do the right thing.

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