By Ava Kofman, ProPublica
Ahmad Ghabboun broke into a sweat. It was a late night in August and he had just discovered an unexpected $14,990 debt posted to the online portal he uses to access his account with Washington state’s unemployment agency. Since May, he had been receiving payments every week through the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program, newly established by Congress to support freelancers like him. The benefits replaced the paycheck he could no longer earn after the pandemic had grounded his work delivering packages for Amazon Flex and driving the occasional shift for Uber.
Now, the agency, formally known as the Washington State Employment Security Department, was demanding he return every penny. The website provided no explanation.
Ghabboun, 31, and his wife, Isra, who was laid off from the beauty department of Nordstrom’s, relied on their combined unemployment benefits to cover their $1,800 rent, the $200 monthly payment on Ghabboun’s car, a 2014 Kia Optima, and various bills, not to mention the costs of preparing for their first child: Ghabboun’s wife was six months pregnant when he received the alert claiming he owed nearly $15,000.
The unemployment benefits the state expected him to return were long spent. At the time, he had enough in his checking account to cover only a month of expenses. “The debt is worse than having never been paid at all,” Ghabboun said.
At the start of the pandemic, many Americans were not getting the unemployment benefits they were due. Now, seven months into the economic crisis, another problem is emerging: In the chaotic rush to push out payments, some workers have been paid by mistake and states are insisting that the recipients return the money.
Incidences of unemployment-benefit overpayments are on the rise across the country, advocates at legal aid organizations say. National data is not yet available, but a few states that have released their numbers hint at the scale of the problem. In Texas, officials are seeking to recoup $214 million from 260,000 claimants. In Ohio, 1 in 5 PUA claimants — that is, around 108,000 people — received an overpayment between March and August, according to the state’s workforce department. In May, Virginia’s agency reported accidentally overpaying 35,000 PUA applicants.
There are many ways for the system to go awry, but usually it’s because the administrative agency, the applicant, the employer or some combination of them made a mistake somewhere in the Byzantine claims process. The majority of problems stem from unintentional errors, according to U.S. Department of Labor data, though intentional fraud is also a problem.
The creation of the PUA, set up quickly and primarily used by workers unfamiliar with the unemployment system, has only increased the potential for such mistakes. “The historic number of claims and complexities of the new federal programs has likely resulted in an equally historic number of overpayments being issued,” said Nick Demerice, Director of Public Affairs at the Washington State Employment Security Department. State unemployment systems across the country, Demerice added, have been “overwhelmed by this crisis, something that has had real and serious impacts for those who have had issues with their claims.”
State unemployment agencies often push hard to recoup overpayments, even when the agencies themselves are at fault. During the pandemic, Florida and Texas have stood out in local news accounts for their aggressive efforts to claw back funds. Some states subtract the money from future unemployment checks. Others garnish tax refunds or paychecks, put a lien on properties and bank accounts or even take claimants to court. Washington is one of 15 states that imposes interest on the debt, and in Arkansas such interest is 10% a year. An outstanding overpayment balance from a previous year may disqualify applicants from receiving any unemployment the next time they apply.
As the economy reels, many Americans have fewer means at their disposal to repay these unanticipated debts. “These are people acting in good faith who end up getting squeezed by the system that’s supposed to help them,” said Alix Gould-Werth, who researches unemployment as director of family economic security policy at the Washington Center for Equitable Growth. “The stress that people are under because of overpayments can be heart-wrenching.”
To compound the stress, the errors aren’t limited to the original decisions on eligibility. After approving, then denying, Ghabboun’s claim, the state of Washington confirmed in writing in October that Ghabboun is entitled to benefits going forward. But that solves only part of his problem. The state is still pursuing him for $14,990 in past benefits.
Until Seattle shut down this spring, Ghabboun’s life looked like it was on an upward trajectory. In 2011, he immigrated from Jordan to Everett, Washington, where some family and friends lived, and in 2015, he became a U.S. citizen. Ghabboun holds degrees in interior design and web design, but steady work as a designer has eluded him. So last year he joined the gig economy, only to see shifts for rideshare and delivery drivers in the Seattle area dry up when the pandemic struck.
Ghabboun applied for unemployment benefits in March, and he began receiving money in late May. This lag isn’t unusual. For weeks this spring, workers across the country waited to receive benefits, a problem that was exacerbated by the confusion states had in setting up the new PUA program. Once Ghabboun was approved, he began receiving $235 a week from PUA, plus an extra $600 weekly boost through the federal CARES Act.
Each Sunday, to verify his continued eligibility, Ghabboun checked off a series of yes-or-no questions on an online certification form. During the summer, some of the questions on that form were changed. Ghabboun speaks English fluently, but it’s his second language, and the phrasing of a new question about working from home temporarily tripped him up. He accidentally affirmed that he could telework, even though, as a driver, he obviously could not.
As soon as he was denied for that week’s unemployment benefits, Ghabboun realized his mistake, and he spoke with an agent at the unemployment office who promised to correct it. It seemed like the problem had been taken care of. Ghabboun even got a letter saying he was approved for benefits. (ProPublica examined these and other documents.)
Then the overpayment balance hit his account. The amount puzzled him. He could imagine owing $235, to cover the week he messed up, but not $14,990. “Even if I had been teleworking that week,” Ghabboun asked, “why would they backdate everything else I had received as an overpayment?”
In Ghabboun’s case, it appears that his initial error, which should have disqualified him for one week, triggered another error in the system. Never mind that the state had informed him in writing that he was eligible for benefits; now the system disqualified him from all previous payments.
After a quick search online, Ghabboun realized that his plight was shared by many workers. He signed up for a Facebook account, so he could join a group for Washington residents dealing with similar issues. This might have offered him some consolation, except that so many of the stories he saw on Facebook lacked happy endings. He couldn’t stop thinking about a woman in Washington who was paying $1,000 each month to the unemployment office, as though she were renting an additional apartment.
Demerice, of Washington state’s Employment Security Department, declined to comment on Ghabboun’s circumstances, citing privacy laws. “We are doing everything we can,” he said, “to get benefits to those who are eligible as quickly as possible.”
It’s no secret that unemployment systems in many states are outdated and hard to navigate by design. The idea is that the harder a system is to use, the fewer people will use it, and the less money a state will have to spend on benefits. It’s common for even native English speakers to misunderstand or mischaracterize something on their application, said Anne Paxton, an attorney at the Unemployment Law Project, a legal aid organization based in Washington state. More complicated systems are, unsurprisingly, more likely to produce inaccuracies, according to a study conducted for the U.S. Department of Labor.
But even unemployment agencies that have modernized their software, like Washington’s, have not necessarily fared better at avoiding improper payments. And when the newer systems break, there can be even less accountability when it comes to fixing them, according to Paxton. Washington updated its system in 2017, but the agency has continued to do a “disastrous job of managing claims,” Paxton said. Demerice defended the state, saying “the modernization of the computer system is one of the reasons Washington was able to be amongst the first states to begin paying CARES act claims.” He added, “The scale and scope of the crisis is what caused the delays, as our capacity could not keep up with the historic demand.”
In several states, terrifying errors have been caused by the outside vendors that agencies hire to modernize their systems, often at great expense. In September, more than 7,000 Louisiana residents received notices saying they’d been overpaid thousands of dollars in unemployment compensation. Jan Marie Olownia, a singer in New Orleans, told ProPublica she felt like she was going to have a panic attack when she first saw the letter, which demanded over $10,000 and threatened to file a lien on her property. “I was afraid my assets would be seized,” she said. “Getting a letter like this could send someone over the edge.” She soon learned that her overpayment had been caused by a programming snafu. “The error was on the part of our vendor and the vendor works for the agency, so we take responsibility for that,” said Ava Dejoie, secretary of the Louisiana Workforce Commission. Once the calculation was corrected, the state confirmed that Olownia and others didn’t owe anything.
The COVID-19 crisis also introduced new confusion about who qualifies for unemployment. People are entitled to benefits if they don’t work because of “specific, credible health concerns.” But many employers dispute that COVID-19 poses a credible concern and treat employees’ refusal to work as voluntary decisions to quit. Several hospitality workers told ProPublica that they had been receiving benefits until their employer appealed the decision; and now, they were expected to foot the overpayment bill.
Sometimes, the state simply appears to be flat wrong. In Raleigh, North Carolina, Equilla Hawkins applied for unemployment in April, started receiving benefits and then was hit with an overpayment notice in June. The state agency thinks she’s still on payroll, which mystifies her. She was laid off from her job at a recreation center last December and stopped doing hair as a freelancer in March. She’s now expected to pay back $300 a month. “I can’t pay that back and why should I have to if it’s no fault of my own?” she asked. “I don’t understand how they can spring this on someone.” Kerry McComber, a spokesperson for the state’s Division of Employment Security, said that the agency would look into Hawkins’ case but asserted that, in general, “agency error is the cause of a very small portion of these overpayments.”
The lengthy delays between applying for benefits and receiving them this year also mean it’s taking longer before agencies catch mistakes. By the time an overpayment is discovered, workers tend to owe more than they might have in previous years. Of the 25 workers ProPublica spoke with, over half had bills upward of $10,000, and several said they expect to set up payment plans that will last for years.
States are under pressure to retrieve misallocated benefits. The U.S. Labor Department measures the accuracy with which each state administers benefits, and if states fall below federal performance standards, they can be subject to financial penalties. “The federal office is a policeman trying to make sure that states are making a serious effort to identify and recover those overpayments,” said Wayne Vroman, a labor economist at the Urban Institute.
Federal data suggests that states make fewer errors than they used to — at least before the pandemic. That’s in part because, in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, a federal law set new standards for agencies, including unemployment offices, to reduce overpayments. In 2010, 50% of the unemployment insurance benefits paid in Indiana and Louisiana were overpayments; by 2019, that rate had fallen below 10% for both states. The Improper Payments Elimination and Recovery Improvement Act also gave states the ability to intercept federal tax refunds and redirect them toward repayment plans.
But to the workers that these agencies are supposed to help, not getting the money one is legally entitled to represents a far graver threat than occasionally getting too much of it. Experts in the unemployment system are wary of what they view as the government’s disproportionate focus on overpayments rather than on underpayments. “Are we correcting for underpayments to the same extent that we are correcting for overpayments? Is it fair to collect an overpayment when there’s an administrative error on the part of the state and workers are doing the best they can to represent the situation accurately?” asked Gould-Werth of the Center for Equitable Growth. “It’s a hard needle to thread, but it’s most important that money gets into the hands of people who are eligible.”
The terms of PUA prohibit states from waiving overpayments. A House bill, introduced in late September, would change that, allowing states to waive the mandatory recoupment in cases where someone could not repay the funds “without severe hardship.” But the halting progress of stimulus talks in Congress has left all proposals to help workers and businesses at a standstill. Meanwhile, 8 million more Americans have fallen into poverty since May, according to new research from Columbia University.
For overpayments doled out through standard unemployment insurance, states have the freedom to waive repayment obligations. Vermont has waived over 25%, making it one of the most forgiving states, according to U.S. Department of Labor data.
By contrast, Washington state waived less than 3% of repayments last year. Demerice responded that waivers “are handled on a case-by-case basis and we work with claimants to develop reasonable payment plans wherever feasible.” The agency, he added, is “not issuing new garnishments or liens at this time” and has also requested discretion to waive PUA overpayments.
The current crisis, experts warn, is not the best time for states to be aggressive in their collection practices. Yet many states, already short of cash, have few options. “If they can get a million dollars back, that’s money they want right now,” said Austin Nichols, an economist with Abt Associates, a nonpartisan research firm. “But if the federal government was more forthcoming with grants to states, there would be less pressure for states to recoup the money.” He added that reclaiming overpayments undermines the purpose of unemployment insurance, which is to help families and pump money into the economy.
After learning he was thousands of dollars in debt in August, Ghabboun spent days calling Washington’s Employment Security Department. He took screenshots of his hold times: one hour, two hour, three hours. When he finally got through, he said, an agent told him that he had to appeal the decision. “Please resolve this issue soon as my pregnant wife and I are relying on this,” Ghabbon wrote in his appeal.
On Oct. 20, Ghabboun learned that his appeal had been adjudicated. He was told that the previous “issue no longer disqualifies you from getting benefits.”
That should have been good news. Except that the decision did not affect the overpayment balance. The online portal still showed him owing $14,990 and the state agency would collect that overpayment as his benefits resumed: Since September, all of Ghabboun’s unemployment benefits have been intercepted by the state and used to defray his debt. “They’re taking money out of their left pocket,” he said, “and putting it into their right pocket.”
Ghabboun and his wife are now relying on her benefits. Those payments, just under $400 a week, cover less than half of their monthly household expenses. To help with bills as November approaches, Ghabboun decided to list his car — which he uses to make his living — for sale.
He is trapped between two unappealing options. If he continues to stay home and avoid potential exposure to the coronavirus, the state will continue to pay down his debt (now at $10,958) but not put any cash in his pocket. But if he goes back to work, he’ll stop receiving unemployment benefits. In that scenario he’d be expected to cover the debt with part of his paycheck. Then again, if the Kia sells, making money as a driver won’t even be an option.
As his baby’s due date approaches, Ghabboun is down to $198 in his checking account. He was able to buy a used crib. He and his wife are getting in touch with a charitable agency that they hope can donate diapers, a stroller and a car seat. “It’s hard to predict what I should do next,” Ghabboun said. “All I know is some action needs to be taken as soon as possible.”