Former members of an evangelical North Carolina church say their leader coerced congregants into filing false unemployment claims after the faltering economy threatened weekly tithes from church-affiliated companies. The members say company owners who were leaders in the Word of Faith Fellowship church would file unemployment claims on employees' behalf, but that the employees would continue working.

Eleven former followers told The Associated Press that they participated in the plan. They estimated that the fraudulent claims would have drawn payments totaling in the hundreds of thousands of dollars between 2008 and 2013.

State officials say such claims would be illegal, and the former congregants said they had been interviewed by state and federal investigators.

The unemployment allegations were uncovered as part of the AP's lengthy, ongoing investigation into the church, based in Spindale, North Carolina.