Governor Charlie Baker, the compassionate technocrat, was all technocrat and no compassion on Monday as he attempted to downplay the state’s efforts to recoup billions of dollars in jobless benefits it has mistakenly paid since the start of the pandemic.
As we’ve reported, the state sent out $33 billion in jobless aid to almost 4 million claimants in 2020 and 2021. The Department of Unemployment Assistance says there are about 383,000 people with open potential overpayments of $2.6 billion, in many cases due to errors it made amid the crush of COVID jobless claims. Total overpayments, including those already resolved, likely far exceed that amount.
On Monday, Baker sidestepped the question of whether he would be in favor of using federal pandemic funds or the state’s budget surplus to spare people from repaying aid they applied for in good faith. Instead, he focused on how most of the apparent overpayments — in which recipients got more money than they were due or were not eligible for in the first place — involve federal benefits, which the DUA administers.
“The way the federal program works is you have to engage with people who may have received an overpayment to collect information from them,” the governor said during a media availability in response to a question from our colleague Matt Stout. “There has been no clawback, and there won’t be a clawback.”
There’s no dispute that the DUA is seeking to get the money back, which it’s allowed to do — and, in the case of federally funded benefits, is legally required to.
True, clawback is a term we’ve used as shorthand for the complicated process the state uses to recover unemployment overpayments. It seems the governor prefers a narrower definition, one in which the state unilaterally takes the money from an individual’s tax refund.
A DUA spokesperson says Baker was indeed referring to how the agency has, since March 2020, suspended its practice of intercepting tax refunds in order to address nonfraudulent overpayments. Instead, the DUA has been offering people installment plans or offsetting future benefits should a claimant become unemployed again.
The department contends that neither of these options involves " ‘clawing back’ funds from anyone.”
Fair enough. And let’s also give the DUA its due: People can appeal its determination or apply for a waiver, such as by citing financial hardship. The department says it has dropped or waived $1.8 billion in overpayments since the pandemic hit.
But we’re still wondering why Baker didn’t take the opportunity to express at least a little compassion for constituents who unexpectedly face demands for $5,000, $25,000, or even more. Many people spent their unemployment checks on necessities such as paying the mortgage.
“My daughter has been terribly affected by this problem and I’ve seen how awful the stress can be as she and the other people try to deal with the crazy bureaucracy,” is how one father put it in an e-mail.
The DUA has refused to say how many individuals received overpayments. But filings with the US Department of Labor show a tally of more than 719,000 overpaid claims not involving fraud from the beginning of 2020 through September 2021. An individual may have multiple claims.
Or maybe we shouldn’t be surprised. Baker is a lame duck, after all. Candidates vying for his job say they would have handled the situation differently. Some are calling for a moratorium on recouping overpayments, while others would consider tapping state surplus funds or federal relief funds to help cover unexpected debt.
Sonia Chang-Díaz, a state senator from Boston and a Democratic gubernatorial candidate, said she is pushing the Senate to freeze efforts to recover overpayments until a public review takes place.
“We must also find ways to resolve this situation that both minimize the negative impact on our state’s economy and ensure that DUA’s books aren’t balanced on the backs of working class and low-income families who can’t afford the money or time needed to navigate our state’s bureaucracies,” she said in a statement.
Another Democratic candidate for governor, Harvard professor Danielle Allen, not only called for a moratorium and Beacon Hill to use surplus money but said Massachusetts officials should work on getting an exemption from the federal government, which has been putting pressure on states to recover excessive benefits.
“It’s beyond frustrating that people who applied in good faith for unemployment support are now being asked to pay up because of mistakes someone else made,” Allen said in a statement.
A campaign spokeswoman for Maura Healey, the state’s attorney general who jumped into the governor’s race last week, said the DUA needs to focus on those who set out to defraud the unemployment benefit system, not individuals caught up in the agency’s paperwork errors. During the pandemic, organized crime rings filed fraudulent claims using stolen personal information.
“Maura believes the focus should be on going after large-scale, intentional fraud operations rather than clawing back money from people who, in good faith, accepted additional support that they thought they were eligible for during the most harrowing periods of the pandemic,” according to Karissa Hand, a spokeswoman for the Democrat.
Geoff Diehl, the lone Republican candidate, also raised concerns about the administration’s handling of the situation. “Going forward I think we need to investigate why mistakes were made so they are not repeated,” he said in a statement.
Before there are investigations, let’s take a sensible step: Pause the clawbacks (or whatever the governor wants to call them) until he and the Legislature can come up with a fair — and compassionate — solution.
Shirley Leung is a Business columnist. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.