BALTIMORE — Tens of thousands of Marylanders have received unemployment overpayment notices.
The notices state claimants were issued benefits they weren't entitled to, however, these workers don’t believe the information is right or that the overpayment is their fault.
Lauren Halterman, a Baltimore County Public Schools employee who has been unable to return to work until schools fully reopen, recently received an overpayment notice for $9,200.
“My tax refund is pretty equivalent to what I’m being asked to pay in overpayments and that money was supposed to help sustain me through the next year, so it’s just been really terrible,” said Halterman.
Patrice Carter has an overpayment of $17,304.
And Maura Tagliaferro’s overpayment balance keeps changing.
“It looks like I now have an overpayment of almost $50,000. Yes, 50,000,” said Tagliaferro.
Tagliaferro never received that amount from the Division of Unemployment Insurance, and yet, her BEACON account currently shows she’s in the red over $40,000.
“I’m not sure what they did, I wish I could tell you, but no, they’re not acknowledging fault. They’re saying it’s an overpayment, it’s valid,” Tagliaferro said.
Carter recently posted about her overpayment notice on Facebook and asked if others had received one.
“Eighty-two [comments] right here. So many people have said yes to this issue,” Carter said.
Her post pales in comparison to the real number of jobless workers impacted.
Through a Maryland Public Information Act request, WMAR-2 News Mallory Sofastaii learned that 44,136 claimants were sent overpayment notices from October 2020 through February 2021.
A third of the notices were issued in January 2021 after the state started processing claims under the new extended federal unemployment insurance programs.
“I don’t think they understand. It’s not by our doing, it’s by putting us under the wrong program that first started the issue,” said Carter.
These claimants believe the notices are connected to the program they were placed in and they were informed of the overpayments after their claims were re-activated in January.
The notices state these claimants were overpaid each week dating back to March 2020 and April 2020, and now they’re being told they’ll have to pay it back.
“They put me in this program. I applied for regular unemployment in March and then they moved me into PUA, I don’t know, it’s their system they do all their own stuff in there, it’s not up to me. They started paying me and I figured they worked it out. It’s not any of the decisions I’ve made,” said Tagliaferro.
“I needed to file bankruptcy when all of this happened because I couldn’t afford to pay my bills,” said Carter. “And now you’re giving me an overpayment for something I didn’t do?”
Adding to their stress, these claimants don’t know how they’ll get it resolved when they can’t get through to the department.
“Contact is hard and to this date I’ve never been able to talk to a human being in that office,” said Halterman.
“I’m on unemployment because I don’t have a job because I need help and now you want to put me in debt? They absolutely need to take accountability for it. It’s their error. They clearly can’t handle the influx of unemployment claims and they were unprepared and that’s something they need to take accountability for,” said Tagliaferro.
The department is now in touch with Halterman, Carter, and Tagliaferro and providing additional information as well as informing them of their options.
The state's response
The Department of Labor said one of the most common reasons for an overpayment is because a claimant provided incorrect information or their proof of income doesn't match their estimated earnings.
This happens more frequently within the federal PUA program because the department cannot confirm wages with a claimant's employer like they can in the state's regular unemployment program.
"Less checks and balances within the federal programs requires more reliance on the information the claimant provides," wrote Fallon Pearre, spokeswoman for the Maryland Department of Labor.
Claimants are not held financially responsible for overpayments that are due to an administrative or system error. However, if it's valid, claimants have 30 days from the establishment of the overpayment to request a waiver of the overpaid amount.
New federal regulations through the Continued Assistance for Unemployed Workers Act gives states the authority to allow claimants who received PUA benefits to also request a PUA Overpayment Recovery Waiver. PUA claimants can request a recovery waiver even if their previous request was denied.
By next week, the Maryland Department of Labor will be emailing all potentially eligible PUA claimants who have an overpayment with instructions and the application.
According to the department, when a claimant receives a Notice of Overpayment, they are informed of their right to file an appeal of the overpaid amount within 15 days. There are several ways a claimant can file an appeal. In addition to filing by phone, they can also file by U.S. postal mail, phone, email, fax, or directly within their BEACON portal.
Timing of overpayments
Sofastaii asked the department about the timing of the overpayments and why so many people received a notices in January. Pearre sent the response below:
"The federal programs require claimants to upload additional proof of income/employment documentation. Upon review, UI staff could determine the information in the documentation provided by the claimant could either not match the claimant's earnings estimates and cause their weekly benefit amount to be redetermined or could show they should be in a different program per federal/state law. The type and timing of documentation uploaded by the claimant to meet the requirements of the federal programs can cause the timing of an overpayment being established to range."