Thousands of Mass. residents told they owe state for unemployment overpayments

METHUEN, Mass. — Sharhonda Haynes said she spent five months battling Massachusetts for unemployment assistance after she lost her job in Oct. 2020. After submitting the required paperwork and requesting a hearing, she said she was finally approved in early  2021.

She was stunned in January when she got a letter from the Dept. of Unemployment Assistance that said she owed the state $21,312 in unemployment overpayments.

“I don’t have $21,000 just sitting around to pay these people,” Haynes said. “How do I owe you guys that money when I went through the approval process. It took five months. You guys approved me. You had all the documentation.”

There are thousands of Massachusetts residents in a similar situation. The Executive Office of Labor and Workforce Development submitted a report to the state legislature outlining unemployment overpayments between Mar. 2020 and Jan. 2022. According to the report, there are 352,476 claimants with outstanding overpayments totally around $2.32 billion.

The DUA launched an overpayment waiver program in January. 28,690 individuals have outstanding waiver requests, the report said.

A spokesperson for the Executive Office of Labor and Workforce Development said the state has already “paused most of its regular overpayment collection activities,” then placed the blame on the federal government for the high number of overpayment notices.

“The vast majority of apparent overpayments are from the federal [Pandemic Unemployment Assistance] program, and the largest single factors driving PUA overpayments were federal rule changes that created overpayments when new employment substantiation requirements were placed on claimants,” the spokesperson said in an email.

EOLWD Secretary Rosalin Acosta sent Labor Secretary Marty Walsh a letter in February, asking the federal government to forgive Massachusetts residents who owe for overpayments.

“I ask that the U.S. Department of Labor provide relief in the form of a blanket waiver for all non-fraudulent unemployment compensation overpayments,” Acosta wrote. “Without a blanket waiver option, however, the [DUA] must evaluate on a case-by-case basis potentially more than 300,000 waiver applications...Further, requiring claimants to apply for waivers may present obstacles to underserved communities who were particularly hard hit during the pandemic.”

Haynes said she doesn’t know how she’ll be able to pay the state all that money.

“It adds a lot of stress, I mean it adds a lot of stress. I was hesitant about filing for unemployment anyways because I feared this would happen to me,” Haynes said.

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