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State labor department abandons unemployed again | COMMENTARY

Single mother Lisa Andersen, who turns on the living room ceiling lamp at her home, has been fighting the state of Maryland, which seeks to recoup overpayments from tens of thousands of unemployment claimants Thu., March 18, 2021. (Karl Merton Ferron/Baltimore Sun Staff)
Single mother Lisa Andersen, who turns on the living room ceiling lamp at her home, has been fighting the state of Maryland, which seeks to recoup overpayments from tens of thousands of unemployment claimants Thu., March 18, 2021. (Karl Merton Ferron/Baltimore Sun Staff) (Karl Merton Ferron)

Some Marylanders whose financial plights were devastated by COVID-19 are now finding themselves in further distress because of one of the very safety nets meant to help them. More than 44,000 residents who lost their jobs and filed for unemployment are now being told they were paid too much and must give some of it back so the state can reconcile benefit amounts under federal law. The news comes as many residents still are not working and have no means to return the money, totaling $145 million in the six months from September through February for everyone who received an overpayment. The average overpayment is a little over $3,700. Many also can’t afford reductions in future checks.

It is the latest insult to Marylanders in need of relief by a Maryland Department of Labor that has bungled the doling out of benefits from the start and showed little compassion for people in desperate need. First, people couldn’t get their benefits at all, some for many months, because of an outdated system that became overwhelmed and couldn’t process claims fast enough. Then an updated portal was riddled with glitches that once again prevented people from being able to file. Through it all, residents struggled to get through labor phone lines for help on what to do. Some found themselves down to their last dollars.

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The lax communication skills of the department are being highlighted again as people try to retrieve more details on why their unemployment benefits are being clawed back. Letters to those affected don’t detail what caused overpayment, including if was the state’s fault, or something the filer did. Overpayments can stem from honest mistakes such as not accurately reporting past income or applying for the wrong program. If it was a mistake by the state, which is plausible for some people given that the unemployment system has been a mess, it seems mean-spirited to go after people when they did nothing wrong and for money they simply don’t have. And especially since the state offered little help to people when they applied on a system many users found confusing. If there is reason to believe some type of fraud occurred, at least give people an explanation so they can defend themselves if they choose.

Claimants can appeal an overpayment notice within 15 days and also request a waiver, but we are not confident that process will run smoothly given the labor department could barely handle giving out benefits. The state already is not revealing how many waivers it has approved. People who got assistance from a federal Pandemic Unemployment Assistance Program can request a waiver under that program even if a previous request was denied, but that will only help some people. Another option is to pay the money back in installments, but even that isn’t much help for someone out of work. After all, they need unemployment for a reason. Our guess is that they’re not exactly swimming in extra cash.

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The state needs to offer some immediate reprieve to these people. They could start by delaying collection of any overpayment until they can give people a reasonable explanation of why they owe at all. What if the state is wrong in their assessment? It wouldn’t be the first time government got something wrong. An even better solution would be for Gov. Larry Hogan or the General Assembly to step in and create some kind of immediate waiver for people who made honest mistakes — forgive the debt and offer people some relief. Perhaps this can be accomplished by executive order or by an act of the General Assembly. As Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh pointed out, $75 million in loans given to small businesses are being forgiven. Why not treat the employees of these small businesses with the same consideration. It seems like the fair thing to do. That doesn’t mean people should be able to get away with fraud. If it is proven that people tried to game the system, the state should recoup that money. That is also the responsible thing to do.

As more people get vaccinated, we are starting to come out of this pandemic from a public health perspective. But it will take much longer for people and companies to dig out financially. Credit card debt, back rent, unpaid mortgages and other bills have piled up for many and we can’t forget how the state’s inefficient handling of unemployment was part of the problem. The Department of Labor needs to be held culpable for that. The state has put people through enough grief and heartache through the unemployment process. It’s time to show they have some understanding of what people are going through and not make their financial predicaments even worse.

The Baltimore Sun editorial board — made up of Opinion Editor Tricia Bishop, Deputy Editor Andrea K. McDaniels and writer Peter Jensen — offers opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. It is separate from the newsroom.

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