I-Team Investigation: Bill could mean those overpaid from unemployment may not have to repay

I-Team: Unemployment overpayments
Published: Mar. 31, 2022 at 7:04 PM EDT
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HARTFORD, CT (WFSB) - Overpaid from unemployment?

It happened to 24,000 Connecticut workers, and the state says that number will only go up.

But, there’s a chance people who got overpaid may not have to repay a dime.

The I-Team is looking closer at a bill that could keep thousands of dollars in your pockets.

When the pandemic hit, unemployment claims skyrocketed.

The Department of Labor says it would usually take 10 years to see the volume we saw in just 12 months.

It was a hectic time for the department and a hectic time for workers who suddenly weren’t working.

Many were applying for unemployment for the first time ever.

The state confirms it resulted in at least 24,000 people being overpaid.

Eyewitness News is looking at what happens to them now that the state wants the money back.

“I got about $2,500 in total,” said Christine Fortenberry.

Fortenberry is a cafeteria worker at a Wallingford Elementary School.

When schools shut down in March of 2020, she wasn’t working.

“I waited a couple of weeks and filed for unemployment on April 7 when it seemed like we weren’t going back to school,” Fortenberry said.

For three months, from the middle of April until June, she says she collected a total of $2,500.

“I paid for groceries, they were so expensive for my kids and my father who is elderly, so it went directly to food each week,” she said.

Then, in October 2021, more than a year after the unemployment benefits stopped, Fortenberry says she got a letter alerting her that she had been overpaid.

The state wanted the money back, and then some.

“They were looking for $3,444.68,” Fortenberry said.

Fortenberry paid it and filed an appeal.

Like so many others, Fortenberry spent her unemployment benefits.

Asking for it back is putting families in a tough spot.

“There’s families that still haven’t recovered from COVID, from the loss of their jobs or their homes and I can’t imagine paying thousands of dollars back to the state on top of living through this emergency,” said Fortenberry.

Senator Julie Kushner is looking to wipe the slate clean with a bill she introduced.

If you got overpaid, you would keep the money.

If you already paid it back, you would be reimbursed.

“To ask those families to repay it, it could set them back for years and we just don’t think that’s fair,” Kushner said.

If the bill passes, people who received paperwork saying they were overpaid could apply for a repayment waiver.

The Department of Labor had granted those waivers when it found mistakes were made by the state and for people who went bankrupt or had a mental or physical condition that would make it hard for them to get a job.

“We want to give amnesty, open a window so that people can once again, even if they missed the deadline, apply for that waiver,” said Kushner.

What if your waiver application gets denied?

“We want to set up a fund to pay for those overpayments, so they won’t cause working families everything they’ve got,” Kushner said.

According to the Department of Labor, of the 628,000 people who applied for unemployment during the pandemic, 24,000 or 3.8% were overpaid, and the state determined it was a genuine mistake, no fraud involved.

Of those 24,000, 14,000 people either paid back what was owed or had their overpayments waived.

This is a rolling number that will go up because it does not account for current cases, like Fortenberry’s, which are still in the pipeline.

“It would be an enormous help. Not just on my behalf but thousands of families who did exactly what they were supposed to when they answered the questions,” Fortenberry said.

The Department of Labor has concerns, citing: “The governor’s budget does not include the $50 million in funding required by the bill.”

They also have questions about determining eligibility for those who were initially denied a repayment waiver by the state.

“We feel like there’s been a lot of money spent to ensure the recovery of Connecticut is complete and we think this is part of the recovery efforts,” said Kushner.

The bill is still in committee.

If it gets out of committee, it’ll be heard by the Senate, then the House.

It would need to be voted on before the session ends in early May.