In the early months of the pandemic, when nearly 700,000 local jobs disappeared in a flash, the Baker administration was caught in a bind: There was a massive backlog of unemployment claims, but laid-off workers needed money fast or a bad economic crisis would only get worse.
The Department of Unemployment Assistance rushed to get benefit checks out the door ASAP, even as vetting applicants was made more complicated by the sheer volume of work and confusing eligibility rules for new federal relief programs. While delays persisted, the DUA says it ultimately delivered $33 billion in state and federal jobless payments in 2020 and 2021 to almost 4 million people.
But the state’s efforts have been marred by costly mistakes.
At least $2.7 billion in benefits went to claimants who, the DUA later determined, received too much money or weren’t eligible for unemployment in the first place. That’s according to a tally of state filings with the US Labor Department by attorney Rory MacAneney of Community Legal Aid, which provides free legal help in Western Massachusetts.
The DUA issued what are called overpayments on 719,000 jobless claims from March 2020 through September 2021, according MacAneney’s data. The department says that the number of claims still unresolved stood at 383,000 last month and that individuals may have more than one claim.
To be clear, we’re not talking about the gangs of scammers who took Massachusetts — and other states — for billions of dollars by filing fraudulent claims with stolen personal information. That’s an entirely different problem.
No, these folks run the gamut from minimum-wage workers to white-collar professionals, and most applied for relief in good faith. They never dreamed the state might come back months later and say, “Sorry, we made a mistake. Pay up.”
Workers such as Matt Goncalves of Taunton, who is repaying $200 a month for five years after he was unsuccessful in trying to avert a clawback of more than $10,000.
Goncalves, 30, was furloughed in March 2020 from a part-time job at Best Buy that he held while also working full time as a school paraprofessional. Best Buy urged him to apply for unemployment, he was approved and collected a weekly check for about three months until he found a new full-time position. Nine months after that, the DUA determined he’d been ineligible for the payments.
Since Goncalves’s current income exceeds his expenses, the state denied his request for a waiver. He says he and his girlfriend are barely making ends meet for themselves and two children.
”How can I save money? How can I buy a house? How can I take my daughter to the movies?” Goncalves said. “Come see how I am really living. I am not trying to mess anyone over.”
Rosalin Acosta, secretary of the Executive Office of Labor and Workforce Development, which oversees the DUA, defended the department’s performance at a legislative hearing last month. Her testimony didn’t mention the dollar total for erroneous payments or an average for current claims.
The DUA routinely makes overpayments. But the sums on the line today — anywhere from several thousand dollars to $80,000 or more — are much larger than in the past, according to lawyers helping workers contest the clawbacks. That’s because it took the department a long time to catch up with its mistakes and because benefit amounts were boosted by pandemic payments from Washington.
Many people facing overpayments have already spent the money on necessities like food, rent, and transportation, or made purchases assuming they could afford it, said Hannah Tanabe, a staff attorney in the employment unit of Greater Boston Legal Services. And since a majority of the overpaid benefits were funded by the feds, recoveries effectively drain money from the Massachusetts economy.
“We shouldn’t be driving workers who are getting back on their feet into more precarious financial situations when the overpayment resulted through no fault of their own,” she said.
Most clawback cases follow a similar pattern, said Representative Joan Meschino, a Democrat from Hull: “I did what I was told. I filed. I received it. I spent it. And now they are trying to get it all back.”
After hearing from a slew of constituents, Meschino sponsored legislation that seeks to clarify and expand the criteria for waiving overpayments for people who didn’t commit fraud. About 39,000 waiver requests have been filed, according to the state.
But Meschino doesn’t think the DUA should simply grant amnesty to everyone.
“DUA needs to go back to find out what went wrong and preserve the integrity of the unemployment system,” she said. “The gut instinct is to slam them. But under the circumstances they did an amazing job.”
In addition to the flood of claims, the department had to quickly set up systems for new federal benefits, whose rules for eligibility caused confusion at the DUA and among benefit-seekers and changed over time. Especially difficult was the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, an emergency program for workers who weren’t eligible for state unemployment.
Massachusetts ranks fourth in PUA overpayments, behind Ohio, Maryland, and Texas, according to MacAneney of Community Legal Aid.
One of those PUA claims was from Abby Heim of Rowley, and the effort to get a waiver on the $80,000 she owes has become a frustrating paperwork slog.
After she started collecting benefits in April 2020, the DUA twice asked her for documentation to support her eligibility. Twice she was sent letters essentially telling her, “I’m good unless we find it’s not good,” Heim said.
Then, last month, the notice came that the department had deemed her ineligible.
“This just seems downright cruel — in the middle of a pandemic, but really, anytime,” Heim, 62, said in an e-mail.
“I’m waking up at night worried about this — if my appeal . . . is denied, I’ll probably need to sell some of my retirement savings to reimburse these 20 months’ worth of payments. Others, presumably, would be even less fortunate and placed into a more dire financial situation.”
The government bailed out Wall Street during the 2007-2008 financial meltdown, even though banks and companies such as American International Group triggered the crisis.
This time around, why can’t we find a way to ease the burden on folks who, through no fault of their own, are on the hook to the DUA for money many don’t have.
Larry Edelman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeNewsEd.