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Cut Mass. residents who owe unemployment some slack

Thousands of people got an unexpected notice from the state government that they would have to repay pandemic unemployment benefits, even though they had followed the program’s rules. That’s not right.

An empty till sits in the doorway of a Jamaica Plain bakery in April 2020 underneath a sign stating it would be closed due to the coronavirus outbreak in Boston.Blake Nissen/The Boston Globe

When it comes to dealing with hundreds of thousands of residents who the state says received higher unemployment benefits than they were entitled to during the pandemic, it’s nice to hear Governor Charlie Baker talk about a more humane and less Draconian approach. But now the state must act that way — and the federal government should also be working to fix a problem it created.

In a recent interview on GBH’s “Boston Public Radio,” Baker said the state wants to help people caught up in the overpayment mess and disclosed that his administration is talking to members of Congress about ways to provide relief. Baker has also taken issue with the characterization of what the state has been doing as a “clawback.”


Whatever he calls it, the state has been trying to get the money back. According to the Globe’s Larry Edelman and Shirley Leung, who have been reporting on the issue, the Department of Unemployment Assistance continues to send out notices seeking repayments. The appeal/waiver process also remains poorly explained and confusing to navigate.

Many of those affected say that it’s still hard to get through to the DUA, and when they do, it takes forever to get a response. What also seems to be missing is basic empathy — an understanding of the stress felt by people who lost their jobs to the pandemic and are now being told they owe the state several thousand to tens of thousands of dollars because of changes in the eligibility rules of a federally funded program called “Pandemic Unemployment Assistance.”

The program provided jobless benefits to independent contractors, gig workers, and others who didn’t qualify for state unemployment pay when they lost their jobs to the pandemic, and overpayment problems associated with it are not unique to Massachusetts. But the mess created here also put a spotlight on a sluggish state bureaucracy and a reluctance to reveal the total amount of overpaid claims or the number of individuals involved.


According to Edelman and Leung’s reporting, the state now says it paid $33 billion in jobless aid to almost 4 million claimants in 2020 and 2021. Currently, there are about 383,000 open cases of people with potential overpayments totaling $2.6 billion, mostly from federal programs, but the state hasn’t said how many cases have been resolved. These were not fraudulent claims from people trying to scam the system. After launching the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program in April 2020, the US Labor Department tightened the rules, which led to many recipients being told retroactively they were ineligible or had been paid too much and would have to return the money. Overpayments occurred across the country, leading to clawback efforts, since the federal Labor Department requires states to recoup federal money even if the claimants were not at fault.

Many people, out of ignorance, frustration, or a desire to settle the matter have simply agreed to pay up. In the meantime, the state, to its credit, has dropped or waived $1.8 billion in overpayments which were not publicized until the Globe started highlighting the problem.

Of course, fraud should never be ignored. But for those who played by the rules, as they understood them, and are now being asked to repay money they already spent, it makes sense to come up with a forgiveness program. In a letter to congressional leaders, the National Association of State Workforce Agencies called on the federal government to waive all non-fraudulent overpayments “to prevent further economic hardship on these individuals.” The Department of Labor, headed by Secretary Marty Walsh, could also help out by changing rules and making it easier to get a waiver. This should happen as soon as possible.


Meanwhile, the message from the Baker administration should be: We know a lot of people are angry and frustrated. We know the appeals/waiver process is confusing. We will do our best to streamline it and work with you.

Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us on Twitter at @GlobeOpinion.