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Unemployment payments kept them afloat during COVID. Now Maryland wants money back.

For thousands of jobless Marylanders, the unemployment benefits that have brought relief in the pandemic are now triggering new stress.

The state wants money back.

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More than 44,000 unemployment insurance claimants received overpayment notices totaling over $145 million in the six months from September through February, officials with the Maryland Department of Labor said.

The notices warn of “legal action” to collect overpayments from claimants if they do not repay what the state says is owed — and many who are still receiving benefits are seeing their weekly allocations reduced to go toward the debt.

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The overpayments can stem from honest mistakes, officials say, such as errors in reporting past income or confusion over which of several programs someone is eligible for.

But the overpayment notices don’t specify the reason.

“People are panicking,” said state Del. Lorig Charkoudian, a Montgomery County Democrat who sponsored legislation meant to improve the state’s unemployment insurance system, which has been criticized throughout the pandemic as unresponsive and slow to issue benefits.

“They already don’t have a job. … Now the state’s saying, ‘You owe us $7,000,′ and they’re not telling them why,” Charkoudian said.

The pandemic has brought on an unprecedented number of jobless claims, plus new federal programs and supplements. Many people filed for unemployment for the first time. Marylanders have described confusion over benefit amounts and difficulties reaching anyone to answer their questions.

Chanell Daye, 29, of East Baltimore said she got a notice in February that she owed about $10,000.

“I was shocked,” Daye said. “I know that I can’t pay that because I’m not working.”

Daye said she lost her job as a shift leader at Royal Farms last year because she didn’t have child care due to the pandemic. She also had to quarantine after being exposed to someone who tested positive for COVID-19.

An unemployment agent told her the overpayment wasn’t her fault, Daye said, but she still has no answers about why the state believes it happened.

“I have no clue,” she said. “This is my first time being on unemployment.”

Maryland says Lisa Andersen was overpaid by $5,470 in unemployment benefits. But like many, she is still out of work and doesn't have the money to pay it back.
Maryland says Lisa Andersen was overpaid by $5,470 in unemployment benefits. But like many, she is still out of work and doesn't have the money to pay it back. (Karl Merton Ferron)

The average overpayment is a little over $3,700, according to the labor department.

Claimants have the right to appeal an overpayment notice within 15 days. In some circumstances, they can request a waiver from the repayment obligation. If someone does not appeal or request a waiver — or if they are denied — they can pay the money back in monthly installments if they cannot reimburse the state immediately, Fallon Pearre, a spokeswoman for the labor department, said in an email.

The department did not respond to requests to make an official available to speak to a reporter. It did not answer some emailed questions, including how often appeals and waivers are granted.

Many of those who have received the notices say they can’t come up with the money.

“We are literally living penny to penny,” said Lisa Andersen, a Brooklyn Park resident who is a single mother of two daughters.

The 42-year-old lost her job in medical billing as the pandemic hit last March.

Then, Andersen said, a former employer erroneously submitted paperwork saying she worked for them in 2020, even though she hadn’t worked there since 2019. This led to the state saying she was overpaid by $5,470.

As a result, she said, her weekly unemployment benefit of $567 has been reduced — by varying amounts. She has received $139 to about $300 in recent weeks.

Single mother Lisa Andersen is pictured at her home. She has documentation suggesting that she deserves unemployment benefits, but has been fighting the state of Maryland, which seeks to recoup overpayments.
Single mother Lisa Andersen is pictured at her home. She has documentation suggesting that she deserves unemployment benefits, but has been fighting the state of Maryland, which seeks to recoup overpayments. (Karl Merton Ferron)

“Every time you call, you can’t get anyone on the phone,” Andersen said, saying she calls daily to try to resolve the problem. “It’s been a nightmare.”

At a Maryland Board of Public Works meeting in February, state Comptroller Peter Franchot said he was troubled by reports of overpayments and said the state’s demands for payment can be “pretty chilling” for those who receive them.

Gov. Larry Hogan’s administration says it’s trying to provide more information to claimants about the notices. State Labor Secretary Tiffany Robinson told Franchot that her department is “trying to communicate better” about the overpayments. She emphasized that the notice is “not a bill” and that people can appeal.

“It is a notice and … we’re trying to increase the communication behind that notice and the reasons for it,” she said.

Recipients interviewed by The Baltimore Sun said they can’t get clear answers.

“I’ve been in the dark now since Dec. 10,” said Pat Cogan, 62.

Cogan, a professional actor, was touring as a cast member of “Jimmy Buffett’s Escape to Margaritaville” when the pandemic shut down live performances.

He lives in New Jersey but his former employer reported wages to Maryland, where the production company was based.

In December, he got notice that he was overpaid more than $6,000.

“I was flabbergasted at the amount,” he said.

Cogan immediately appealed the overpayment. More than three months later, he still hasn’t heard the status of his appeal. In the meantime, the state is withholding $88 a week to go toward the overpayment.

The 44,000 state overpayments in the six months ending in February represent a large increase.

In all of 2019, the year before COVID-19 hit Maryland, the state overpaid fewer than 16,000 claimants.

With widespread unemployment in the wake of the pandemic, states around the country are seeking to recoup overpayments.

Nzingha Hooker, an attorney with the National Employment Law Project, which advocates for low-wage workers and the unemployed, pointed to several common reasons for overpayments.

An agency may determine someone is eligible for a benefit, then later find them ineligible. Also, the pandemic caused large numbers of people to be unemployed for the first time, so they may have made mistakes in a complicated system, she said.

In the case of federal Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, for the self-employed and others who don’t qualify for regular unemployment, the program “was built from scratch overnight,” Hooker said.

“That led to some inaccuracies,” she said.

Hooker said many states have highlighted unemployment fraud in the pandemic. But fraud should not be conflated with situations in which people have been overpaid through no fault on their own, she said.

“There has been this overemphasis on fraud,” Hooker said. “These are innocent people.”

Maryland labor officials say overpayments involve both fraudulent activity and nonfraudulent errors. The department did not provide information on how many overpayments it believes are related to fraud.

Delegate Charkoudian said the overpayment notices are sparking intense stress in addition to presenting financial challenges for those who receive them.

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Lisa Andersen attempts to navigate the state of Maryland unemployment website.
Lisa Andersen attempts to navigate the state of Maryland unemployment website. (Karl Merton Ferron)

Her bill, which passed the House of Delegates this month, aims to improve customer service, connect the unemployed with health insurance, increase transparency and speed up the time frame for processing claims.

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In cases of overpayments, it would also require the labor department to state the reason it’s trying to recoup the benefits.

Currently, an overpayment notice ”lists the date and the amount, but nowhere on there does it tell you what the reason is,” she said.

And those seeking the reasons describe problems reaching anyone at the unemployment division to ask questions.

Mike Phelps, 43, has received benefits from the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program because he was self-employed, doing work in disaster restoration services.

He recently got an overpayment notice that shocked him: $12,000. Now, his benefits have been reduced by more than $200 a week, he said.

Phelps said the notice told him he could appeal, but he couldn’t reach anybody through email or phone to ask questions.

“What are we supposed to do if we can’t get ahold of anybody?” he said.

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