By Stephen Clark, ,
Published December 24, 2015
There's a new "benefit" to being unemployed. It's a debit card. Don't leave home without it.
In a deal worked out between state unemployment agencies and Citigroup Inc., Bank of America Corp, JPMorgan Chase and US Bancorp, unemployed workers across the country are no longer receiving money from the states in the form of unemployment checks, but rather as regular deposits to bank cards -- with fees attached.
The first transaction is free, according to the Labor Department. The rest will cost you.
"When using debit cards for unemployment benefit payments, the state must allow the beneficiary at least one opportunity to withdraw their unemployment benefit payment without incurring any fees. This means, for example, that the beneficiary can present the debit card at a bank and receive cash," Labor Department spokeswoman Suzanne Bohnert told FOXNews.com.
At least 30 states administer programs that allow unemployment recipients to collect their benefits using debit cards. Another 10 states, including the unemployment hot spots of California, Florida and South Carolina, are considering such programs or have signed contracts. Others still use traditional checks or direct deposit to a bank account.
The banks say their programs offer convenience, but they all carry fees, and in several states the unemployed have no choice but to use the debit cards.
Transactions fees vary from state-to-state and bank-to-bank, but if a jobless worker doesn't manage money well, his or her charges could result in overdraft charges of up to $20.
"I think banks like to hide behind this cloak of convenience," said Ginna Green, a spokeswoman for the Center for Responsible Learning. "I can't see how paying a fee to access a benefit check or walking around with all that cash is convenient."
The Labor Department does suggest a solution -- jobless workers who don't want to pay the fees can make one large withdrawal.
"The individual decides how to manage his drawdowns using the debit card. These decisions are similar to the decisions any individual would make in managing his bank account in a way that minimizes fees," Bohnert said in an e-mail statement.
With the national unemployment rate now at 7.6 percent, the market for bank-issued unemployment cards is booming. In 2003, states paid only $4 million of unemployment insurance through debit cards. By 2007, it had ballooned to $2.8 billion, and by 2010 it will likely rise to $10.5 billion, according to a study conducted by Mercator Advisory Group, a financial industry consulting firm.
Some banks, depending on the agreement negotiated with each state, make money on the interest they earn after the states deposit the money and before it's withdrawn. The banks and credit card companies also get roughly 1 to 3 percent interest off the fees earned from the transactions made with the debit cards.
President Obama's $787 billion stimulus bill will increase federal unemployment benefits by $40 billion this year, providing more money from which banks can collect fees.
"I think the $40 billion should come with some strings attached," Green told FOXNews.com.
The White House did not return repeated phone calls seeking comment.
Bohnert said the Labor Department requires states administering the programs to take corrective action if they don't provide the minimum level of service or the opportunity to make a single withdrawal of unemployment payments without fees.
She said the department has encouraged and supported states in transitioning from the use of paper checks for unemployment benefits to direct deposit and debit cards.
"Using direct deposit and debit cards are considered to be more efficient for the state, and provide unemployment insurance beneficiaries with a faster, less expensive, and safer method of receiving benefit payments," Bohnert said in the statement, adding that issuing paper checks often required recipients without bank accounts to pay fees to check-cashing agencies.
"Additionally, checks were sometimes lost in the mail, which often resulted in significant delays in beneficiaries receiving replacement checks," Bohnert said.
But Green said the federal government should require states to disburse the funds effectively and properly.
"And sorry, disbursing the funds on a debit card is neither effective nor responsible," she said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.