If losing a job amid the coronavirus pandemic wasn’t stressful enough, tens of thousands of out-of-work Texans also have been notified that they received too much money in unemployment benefits and now are in debt to the state.
The Texas Workforce Commission says it has overpaid a total of $203 million to about 185,000 people from March 1 through Sept. 15 while attempting to quickly get state and federal benefits to those in need.
The figures are relatively small fractions of both the total amount that has been disbursed and the total number of people who have received benefits.
According to data supplied by the commission, it has paid out a whopping $30.1 billion in benefits, putting the overpayment amount at less than 1% of that total. The agency said it has processed an estimated 4.9 million claims, putting the notices of overpayments at 3.8% of those claims.
But such statistics are scant consolation to Texans who have been told they now owe money for benefits they thought were intended to help them weather a coronavirus-induced financial calamity and in many cases have already spent.
“The person is then on the hook for what they needed as a desperately needed lifeline,” said Kathryn Youker, an attorney who oversees the labor and employment group at Texas RioGrande Legal Aid. “It’s a terrible insult to injury when someone gets unemployment benefits and then the Texas Workforce Commission later determines that they were not in fact eligible.”
The commission has said it temporarily suspended efforts to recoup overpayments six months ago because of the pandemic, although the agency says it is notifying people about the overpayments and asking that they come up with repayment plans. It has information on its website regarding the suspension of collections.
But Youker — whose nonprofit organization provides free legal services for low-income people and is helping clients appeal overpayment determinations — said the notices she has seen direct recipients to pay up.
In a notice received by a Texas RioGrande client in August that she shared with the American-Statesman, the commission stated unequivocally that the “action required” was to “repay the overpayment” or see subsequent benefits docked until the balance hits zero.
In addition to what Youker called the agency’s mixed message, she said it has been making an increased number of mistakes in determining overpayments during the pandemic.
“They are paying (benefits) out, and then they are saying, ‘Whoops, we figured this wrong and now you have an overpayment on these federal programs,’” she said.
James Bernsen, deputy communications director at the commission, disputed that contention, saying, “The most likely scenario (in the case of an overpayment) is incomplete data that we receive” from either a benefit claimant or their employer, making it not the agency’s fault.
Even prior to the pandemic, Bernsen said, the commission routinely began issuing payments based on initial information before conducting deeper audits of eligibility that could cause delays, because its goal is to get benefits to people quickly. The upshot is that some level of overpayment is par for the course, he said.
“We would always certainly err on the side of getting payments out to the most people as fast as we can,” he said. “In doing so, any effort that you do is going to have issues like this.”
But he couldn’t immediately say if the overpayment notices being sent out amid the pandemic are informing recipients that collections have been temporarily suspended, or if that message is only on the commission’s website.
In addition, 2020 has been far from typical for the agency. It has faced a tidal wave of first-time claimants for jobless benefits — jamming its phone lines and website earlier this year and leading to weekslong ordeals for those trying to get through — while scrambling to oversee myriad new federal relief programs and standard benefits.
Last year, the commission paid out a total of about $2.1 billion in unemployment benefits, not even a tenth of the amount it has disbursed during the pandemic.
The agency also is continuing to field huge numbers of phone calls regarding unemployment benefits, with inquiries still coming in at about 1 million a week — after spiking to over 15 million a week in May — compared with about 60,000 a week before the coronavirus slammed the state’s economy.
Bernsen said the commission has boosted the number of staffers handling calls from about 400 before the pandemic to about 1,500 now, by reassigning some employees and using contractors.
Despite all that, he said the commission’s ability to accurately process unemployment claims hasn’t been compromised.
Others aren’t so certain.
The commission “has hired a bunch of new people and transferred a bunch of people” to help with claims, said Jeff Larsen, an attorney at Lone Star Legal Aid in Houston.
“So I think it is sort of inevitable that you are going to have some people who are less well trained,” Larsen said. “There is confusion, there is a lot of delay, and all those things are kind of a recipe” for problems.
Still, Larsen said he hasn’t seen either an increase in overpayment notifications among his organization’s clients or an upsurge in mistakes by the commission. Both he and Texas RioGrande’s Youker had the same advice for anyone who receives an overpayment notice, however.
“Appeal as soon as you get it, and get someone to represent you if you can,” Larsen said.
©2020 Austin American-Statesman, Texas