When COVID-19 cost millions of Massachusetts workers their job, unemployment benefits helped pay the bills.
But for many recipients, that financial lifeline has now dragged them into a bureaucratic morass so deep they can’t see a way out.
Weeks or months after approving their benefits, the state Department of Unemployment Assistance delivered them troubling news: There was an issue with their claim, and if not resolved, they would have to pay back the money.
Trying to sort out the problem has been a massive headache for some of the hundreds of thousands of people who were flagged for so-called overpayments. Notices from the DUA could be confusing, and it was hard to reach a service agent. Many people had spent the money that the department now says was paid improperly.
“I am in this situation, and it’s not my fault. But I am being told it is my fault,” said Jose Alfaro, a Newbury Street hairstylist who may have to pay back nearly $10,000 in state benefits due to a mixup over providing proper identification.
That sentiment was repeated frequently as we talked to people about their experiences with the DUA. They feel like the department has unfairly placed the burden on them to prove they did nothing wrong.
It’s easy to paint the DUA as the villain, but the federal government helped create the mess. And many benefit-seekers submitted incomplete claims or didn’t follow up in a timely fashion.
The state unemployment division is a slow-moving bureaucracy that was hard to negotiate even before the pandemic. In the spring of 2020, it was crushed by a flood of COVID claims, creating a massive backlog.
At the same time, the DUA had to roll out a new federally funded program, called Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, for workers who didn’t qualify for state benefits, such as freelancers and independent contractors.
Overpayment notifications soared after Congress passed new jobless relief legislation in December 2020. As part of the bill, the DUA was required to obtain documented proof of prior employment from PUA recipients, who were initially able to self-certify their eligibility.
The DUA says it has dropped on appeal or waived $1.8 billion in overpayments. But according to its most recent data, 383,000 people are still trying to resolve $2.6 billion in disputed claims.
Here are the stories of people battling with the state over money they thought was rightfully theirs.
The waiting is the hardest part
Jose Alfaro collected less than three months of state jobless benefits after the Newbury Street hair salon where he works temporarily shut down in March 2020. But that short stint on unemployment has led to a long struggle to clear up a dispute with the DUA that has pushed him to the brink of desperation.
Alfaro, 30, had just returned from a vacation in Florida and was eager to replenish his bank account when the COVID shutdown left him and more than 30 others in the salon without a paycheck.
He was initially unable to get into the state’s UI Online website to apply for jobless benefits. Alfaro says he made scores of phone calls to the DUA’s help line without reaching anyone.
“I felt extremely stressed. How am I going to pay my bills? I was totally freaking out.”
He finally got through to a DUA agent and eventually sorted out the technical issue. His claim was approved and Alfaro received $9,975 until he went back to work at the end of May.
Alfaro thought he was done dealing with the DUA. He kept his UI Online account open — the DUA advises this in case you end up having to seek benefits in the future — but he rarely checked it.
When he did log on in the fall of 2020 he found a notice from the DUA dated Oct. 8: “You have failed without good cause to present proper identification, and therefore do not meet the filing and registration requirements.”
“When I found out, I cried,” said Alfaro, who couldn’t recall exactly how long after the notice was sent that he read it. “I thought, I can’t afford to pay this money.”
The notice didn’t explain how he could rectify the identification issue, though it did say he could appeal the decision.
After some effort he reached a DUA agent, who told him to request an appeal hearing. He’d then be asked to provide acceptable identification. It would take a while, he was told, but would solve the problem.
He waited to get a hearing date but, frustrated, he called again. “I am a worrier,” Alfaro said.
This time he was told to cancel the appeal and separately submit his ID. He did so.
But he was still getting overpayment notices.
“The more I get them, the more I am panicking,” he said.
After going back and forth with the DUA for months, frequently getting conflicting information, he requested another appeal hearing. More back and forth, more demands for information, more waiting.
In early December 2021, still lacking a resolution, he once again contacted the DUA.
“I was told to provide a claimant ID,” Alfaro said. In other words, “Here we are starting all over again.”
Alfaro is a survivor of human trafficking when he was a teenager, and has struggled with feelings of vulnerability in the face of systemic failure to protect marginal communities. His experience with the DUA triggered feelings of stress and panic akin to what he felt when he was younger.
“This is what happens when systems fail us,” said Alfaro, who serves as an adviser to the Human Trafficking Legal Center in Washington, D.C. “And there is nothing I can do about it.”
Today, 21 months after he went back to work, Alfaro still hasn’t resolved his case.
The day the music stopped
Sandeep Das used to travel extensively as a musician playing the tabla ― Indian hand drums — performing with symphonies around the country or as a member of Yo-Yo Ma’s Silkroad Ensemble.
But early in 2020, the concerts stopped. Tour dates — from China to the United Arab Emirates, from California to North Carolina — were canceled.
Being self-employed, Das typically would not qualify for jobless benefits, but under the PUA program he did. Or so he thought.
It took him a month and many phone calls to the state unemployment office before he received any money. Das’s situation, as a traveling musician, was more complicated than usual. For instance, the state needed to verify his lost income and employment at various venues where he would have had gigs but for the pandemic, not with a single employer.
Then Das had to fill out the paperwork twice. He was told that before he could apply for PUA, he first needed to be denied benefits from the regular state unemployment system.
“Even figuring that out, you can imagine, was a nightmare,” said Das, who immigrated from India a decade ago and lives in a Chestnut Hill condo complex.
In May 2020, the state determined he was eligible to receive up to $1,230 a week from PUA and another federal pandemic program.
Das qualified for 80 weeks of unemployment but only collected for 17 because he began to work again performing and teaching. He cashed his last benefit payment in August 2020.
But in October, the DUA said Das was not eligible for the federal PUA program and should have applied for benefits through the regular state employment process. He resubmitted his application and once again got on the phone with DUA agents in an attempt to clear up the situation. In January of last year, the state reapproved him for federal PUA benefits he had already spent.
Over the summer, Das began to tour again. Like many others who collected unemployment benefits, he stopped routinely checking the state claims portal once he found work.
When he logged on in November, he was shocked to learn that the state had reversed course again and deemed him ineligible for PUA. It had asked him to provide further documentation — proof of Massachusetts residency and proof of wages from prior jobs.
Because he had not checked his DUA portal, he missed the deadline for producing the documents. The state sent him an overpayment notice demanding that all of his benefits — $19,398 — be returned.
Das got back on the phone to plead for an extension, but his request was denied. He is now appealing his denial. “A human being needs to see that I have all the documents,” said Das. “I just can’t give the money back. I didn’t plant a tree that’s growing money with it.”
‘This is a weight hanging over my head.’
As an adjunct professor at Berklee College of Music, Kaimy Masse works on an annual contract that begins every May 1.
But that didn’t happen in 2020 when the pandemic sent college students home for the rest of the spring semester. Making matters worse, Berklee told Masse, who teaches voice ensemble, that there was no guarantee that she would be teaching in the fall.
With no income for the foreseeable future, Masse checked with her faculty union, AFT Local 4412, to find out whether she qualified for pandemic jobless benefits. She was told yes, even as a part-time professor who teaches 18 hours a week.
Masse stopped teaching on May 8 and applied for unemployment benefits the same day. She was approved, and began receiving benefits two weeks later. As her family’s primary breadwinner, those checks paid the bills, including the mortgage and utilities.
By the time fall semester began, she had a new contract, and stopped claiming benefits. But Berklee cut her hours nearly in half for the spring 2021 semester, when the school operated on a hybrid model with a mix of remote and on-campus learning.
Masse went back on unemployment to claim income lost from her reduced schedule. Meanwhile, the DUA had conducted a review of her claims and deemed her ineligible for benefits she received last summer because she ultimately got a new contract.
After a series of hour-long calls to the DUA in March 2021, Masse learned she owed the state more than $20,000. She was told conflicting stories about whether she could appeal, but with the help of her union she was able to file one in May.
“It really upset me. I couldn’t fathom having to pay that money back,” said Masse. “I don’t have it laying around.”
In October, while Masse was waiting for word on her appeal, the state sent her a notice of a “tax refund intercept” outlining how the DUA can deduct money from her refund if the overpayment claim does not get resolved. (Governor Charlie Baker has said the agency is not pursuing such clawbacks.)
Masse still hasn’t heard back from the DUA. She is one of several thousand members of an AFL-CIO union in Massachusetts dealing with overpayment notices. Like her, many have yet to get a hearing for a waiver or an appeal.
“I haven’t received anything that says I am cleared,” said Masse. “This is a weight hanging over my head, and I really just want to be released. It’s a burden on our family to think that we would have to try to pay back this money, even to think that they would take our taxes.”
An exception to the rule
Alex Gagne is one of the lucky ones. His problem with the DUA was sorted out in a matter of weeks.
A freelance photographer, the Franklin resident’s business dried up shortly after the onset of the pandemic as business gatherings, sports events, weddings, and graduations were canceled. Many of the publications he routinely worked for cut back freelance spending amid the uncertainty.
Gagne, 37, applied for PUA and received about $34,000 over 19 months until the program expired in September 2021. In January, nearly two years after his first PUA check, the state notified him that he hadn’t been eligible — because he either had a jobless claim in another state or was eligible to file in another state — and needed to pay it all back.
“I followed the rules they set out for this thing,” he said. “Now they are switching the rules” after approving him.
Based on a conversation with a DUA agent, Gagne suspected the issue was a W-2 form that a New York-based publication used to report his income from a one-day assignment. His other clients use a Form 1099 to disclose his freelance pay to the government. Maybe the DUA thought he was a salaried employee?
Gagne quickly filed an appeal and reached out to his local state representative, Jeff Roy, for help navigating the DUA bureaucracy. His dad also contacted Roy.
Roy says he’s probably handled 1,000 pleas from constituents for help with unemployment issues in the past two years. The DUA, he says, has a liaison who can quickly put a legislator in touch with the right person to deal with a problem.
While Roy lauded DUA staffers for their hard work, he criticized its practice of sending out letters that tell people they are guilty of taking overpayments and must prove their innocence.
“It’s not a good look,” said Roy, a Democrat who represents Franklin and Medway. “This heavy hammer is put on people and they panic.”
And in early February, Gagne got word from the DUA that he was off the hook.
Larry Edelman can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeNewsEd. Shirley Leung is a Business columnist. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.