NORTHAMPTON — A number of area residents are receiving letters from the state asking for reimbursement of unemployment benefits paid to them during the COVID-19 pandemic — sometimes to the tune of tens of thousands of dollars.
“What people are getting are ‘recovery’ letters,” said Rep. Lindsay Sabadosa, D-Northampton, who said she was contacted by many voters receiving the letters.
Sabadosa said that at the start of the pandemic, the main goal was to get money into people’s hands quickly. Now the state Department of Unemployment Assistance is reviewing cases that were overlooked earlier in the pandemic. In some cases, this means that people must provide additional documentation to prove their eligibility to receive benefits. In other cases, people are notified that they received benefits for which they were not eligible.
Sabadosa encourages people to contact his office, which can help file an appeal. “There were instances where we were able to fix it quickly,” she said.
A January article in the Boston Globe said at least $2.7 billion in benefits went to claimants who the DUA found had received too much money or were ineligible for unemployment in the first place. This was based on data provided to Community Legal Aid, which also said the DUA issued overpayments on 719,000 unemployment claims.
MassHire Franklin Hampshire Career Center is another organization that can help people with unemployment appeals. Maura Geary, the organization’s executive director, said staff at the center can guide people through the state’s website and offer other advice.
While MassHire helped process a lot more unemployment assistance in the first 18 months of the pandemic, Geary said there’s been a recent surge in assistance caused by overpayment letters and people requesting tax form 1099 for their unemployment benefits, which are taxable.
As for overpayment letters, Geary said the most common problem is that the state sent out unemployment benefits during the pandemic without the same level of verification. In a number of cases, employers are now contesting unemployment claims. Additionally, the DUA can report a person’s social security number indicating that they were working when they were actually collecting benefits.
“Most of the time no decision was made,” Geary said of the letters. “They need to investigate.”
As for those who received Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, which was provided to the self-employed and others unable to qualify for traditional unemployment, Sabadosa said community legal aid can help. .
Amy Dion, an attorney at Community Legal Aid, said the organization was dealing with many clients who had received overpayment letters, with some clients being asked to repay tens of thousands of dollars.
Dion said sometimes ineligibility can be waived, but in cases where she can’t, she advises asking for a waiver to forgive what’s owed.
“They can fill it out online,” she said.
Dion said the DUA considers several factors when evaluating waiver requests. These include whether someone has given up other benefits to get unemployment, whether they have the ability to repay the money, and whether someone having to repay would be against fairness and good conscience. . She also said waivers are not available in cases of fraud.
Another item noted by Dion is that the DUA can intercept tax refunds in cases of overpayment.
“That money is a lifeline for so many of our customers,” she said.
However, she also noted that such interceptions only occur after a judgment is final.
Sabadosa said people who are being asked to pay taxes on unemployment funds while being asked to return the money should consult an accountant. The Volunteer Income Tax Assistance Program, a free tax filing service, can also help.
Rep. Dan Carey, D-Easthampton, said his office hasn’t seen an increase in unemployment calls. He said, however, that his office had dealt with cases of overpayments and that people should contact him.
“That’s what we’re here for,” he said.
Under a bill recently signed by Governor Charlie Baker, the DUA will be required to submit a report estimating how many people were overpaid during the pandemic and approximately how much overpayment they were paid.
The bill allows the DUA to reconsider determinations or reviews of decisions resulting in overpayments one year after the original decision, and requires the organization to launch a public awareness campaign to inform those who have been overpaid. that they have more time to appeal.
DUA did not respond to repeated calls for comment.
Bera Dunau can be reached at [email protected]