The state’s troubled unemployment claim system is generating a new batch of problems, sending letters to jobless people that threaten to garnish their tax refunds to cover alleged overpayments, according to testimony at a State House hearing Thursday.
Margaret Monsell, an attorney with the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute who represents people in unemployment disputes, told a panel of legislators that some claimants started receiving such letters this month. The letters appear to have gone to people who had erroneously received bills from the state — sometimes for thousands of dollars — to recoup past unemployment payments.
“We’re very concerned about it,” Monsell said. “It causes people a lot of anxiety. Some of the amounts are pretty steep.”
Neither she nor officials from the Department of Unemployment Assistance knew how many of the letters were mailed out. Monsell said that in all the cases she knew, too much time had passed for the department to legally collect the alleged overpayments.
“This is certainly an issue that DUA is working to resolve,’’ spokeswoman Lauren Jones said.
The hearing was the second held by state Senator Cynthia Stone Creem, chairwoman of the Post-Audit Committee, since late October the new system. It has been riddled with glitches following its July 1 launch, which came two years late and more than $6 million over budget.
In her questions Thursday, Creem seemed to seek assurances that the system was improving for users. But Monsell said the online system remained challenging for less tech-savvy people and for those who do not speak English. The online system is displayed only in English, forcing non-English speakers to contact the agency in person or by telephone, where wait times average at least 45 minutes.
The department is planning to introduce online service in Spanish in the next few years and will later evaluate whether to add other languages, according to Jones.
Monsell said the site has presented complications even for those who speak English. At the urging of her group and other advocates, the Unemployment Assistance Department said it is considering hiring a consultant to assess whether the site is readable for someone at a seventh-grade level or lower.
Michael Krigsman, an independent information technology consultant in Brookline, testified at the hearing that the IT contract for the unemployment system did not include enough testing and relied too heavily on releasing a complex project all at once.
In addition, Krigsman said, such large projects should be developed with much closer cooperation with people who will actually be using them. “There should have been users involved right from the beginning,’’ he said.
Deloitte Consulting, the firm that build the online service, has also come under scrutiny in California because of problems with an unemployment system it built there.
Deloitte was fired from a $114 million project to overhaul the Massachusetts Department of Revenue’s system in August. The firm has said it was a mutual decision to part ways, after it had received $54 million from the state.
The firm is now working on yet another large project for the Commonwealth, the $77 million modernization of the Registry of Motor Vehicles’ licensing software.
The state’s chief procurement officer, Gary Lambert, had been expected to testify Thursday and was present at the hearing. But, pressed for time, Creem postponed his appearance, possibly until another hearing in January.