WASHINGTON -- Many states shortchange the jobless by distributing unemployment benefits on debit cards loaded with obnoxious fees, according to a new study by the National Consumer Law Center.
Of the 40 states that have switched from paper checks to prepaid debit cards, 22 states' cards charge ATM fees, 24 charge balance inquiry fees, and 28 charge inactivity fees. The cards in Arkansas, Idaho, Nebraska, Ohio, and Oregon come with overdraft fees ranging from $10 to $20.
And in Connecticut, Iowa, Rhode Island, and Tennessee, cardholders "must pay for every ATM inquiry or pay a denied transaction fee if they request cash when their balance is insufficient," the study says.
Tennessee stands out for having the card with the most "junk fees," the study says. Tennessee's card, provided by JPMorgan Chase, charges $1 for initial ATM withdrawals, 40 cents for balance inquiries, and 25 cents whenever someone swipes the card at checkout. It's one of just four states that doesn't provide even one free ATM withdrawal per deposit.
Tennessee doesn't think its card's fees are junk.
"I’m not sure calling them 'junk fees' is a fair statement," said Jeff Hentschell, a spokesman for the Tennessee Department of Workforce Development, which distributes Tennessee Automated Payment cards for jobless benefits. "When you look at the context of where we were and where we are today, the fees are actually minimal compared to where people were going to cash paper checks before."
Indeed: The NCLC study itself points out that for people without bank accounts, "getting cash from a UC prepaid card will usually be cheaper than paying a check casher to cash a paper check."
Hentschell added his department has a handy website that lays out the fees.
As for Chase, the bank says it's giving states a good deal on a valuable service.
"Each state negotiates its own contract and fee structure from numerous bidders," a Chase spokeswoman said in an email. "To date, states have chosen card solutions that cost government nothing and save taxpayer dollars, selecting their card provider based on the best mix of fees and services to the consumer."
The NCLC study says the Bank of America-issued cards in California and New Jersey are the best, since they offer "free and ample access to cash and transactions with no penalty fees." The study says close runners-up are Chase's card in Arizona and Citibank's in Maryland.