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Unemployment overpayments create new headaches for Ohioans

December 10, 2020 GMT
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Ashley Hagstrom poses outside her house, Monday, Nov. 23, 2020, in Parma, Ohio. The state's efforts to recoup unemployment compensation it mistakenly paid during the pandemic is causing new headaches for some laid-off Ohioans still awaiting money they are legitimately due. The state made about $48 million in overpayments during the first six months of the coronavirus outbreak, and has recouped about half that amount. Hagstrom was a caterer for the Cleveland Browns who was furloughed in early April. The state mistakenly paid her during her maternity leave and demanded repayment while still not paying her the unemployment wages she's owed. (AP Photo/Tony Dejak)
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Ashley Hagstrom poses outside her house, Monday, Nov. 23, 2020, in Parma, Ohio. The state's efforts to recoup unemployment compensation it mistakenly paid during the pandemic is causing new headaches for some laid-off Ohioans still awaiting money they are legitimately due. The state made about $48 million in overpayments during the first six months of the coronavirus outbreak, and has recouped about half that amount. Hagstrom was a caterer for the Cleveland Browns who was furloughed in early April. The state mistakenly paid her during her maternity leave and demanded repayment while still not paying her the unemployment wages she's owed. (AP Photo/Tony Dejak)

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — As the state distributed billions in unemployment compensation during the pandemic, some errors led to overpayments that created headaches for laid-off Ohioans already feeling the stress of long-term and unexpected unemployment.

The state made about $48 million in overpayments during the first six months of the coronavirus outbreak, and has recouped about half that amount, according to records provided by the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services.

Most overpayments were the result of people not reporting or underreporting earnings during weeks they claimed benefits, the state said. Lagging payroll data from employers verifying wage information contributed to errors, along with fraud and some mistakes by agency staffers, the state said.

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The state acknowledged that errors and overpayments happened because of the “unprecedented increase” in cases this year.

“We understand the frustration overpayments cause during what is already a stressful time, and we are committed to doing everything we can to lessen those hardships,” said agency spokesperson Bret Crow.

The pandemic forced the human services agency to deal almost overnight with record-high unemployment claims. For the week ending March 14, right before state shutdowns began to take effect, the agency handled a total of 5,430 claims for unemployment over seven days.

Two weeks later, the state received 272,117 claims for the week ending on March 28 — the equivalent of about 9,718 claims every six hours. To date, the human services agency has distributed more than $7.4 billion in unemployment compensation payments to more than 855,000 Ohioans.

The agency’s director, Kimberly Hall, told lawmakers in May that Ohio ’s response was hobbled by an understaffed benefit system and its call center’s antiquated technology.

Initial unemployment claims jumped 31% for the week ending Nov. 28, according to figures released Thursday. Claims for continued unemployment, considered a more reliable indicator of the economy’s strength, rose 6%, the state said.

As the tsunami of unemployment claims hit the overwhelmed agency, it included mistaken payments in the effort to fill claims fast. For some unemployed, resolving those mistakes has been a bureaucratic nightmare.

“I’m literally just trying to get any answers,” said Ashley Hagstrom of Parma, in suburban Cleveland.

Hagstrom, 26, had been working at her “dream job” handling catering for the Cleveland Browns when she was furloughed in early April. She filed for unemployment and started receiving benefits. But she also told the state that on May 4 she would begin six weeks’ planned medical leave for the birth of her son, her first child, and so would be ineligible for unemployment during that time.

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“They told me to continue to file but to put that I was not available and not able to work for the six weeks that I was going to be on medical leave,” Hagstrom said. “To just be honest.”

That’s when her problems began. A few days later she realized she was still receiving unemployment checks. She called and was told she was doing everything correctly. She received more money and called again, receiving the same response.

Her medical leave ended and despite her frequent calls to the state, she was informed she owed $6,600 in overpayments, including almost $1,000 in taxes which she had elected to have withheld.

Eventually, after weeks of phone calls, she won her appeal of the overpayment and learned she wouldn’t have to pay back the taxes. But as of this week, the state is once again saying — without explanation — that she owes $3,000 in overpayments and is deducting the money from what would be her regular payments.

Hagstrom is still owed about $4,700 from early on. She’s given up calling the state and is working through her state representative instead.

Hagstrom said she and her husband are living off his salary and struggling to pay for health insurance. While no one could predict a pandemic, eight months in — with Christmas around the corner — she thinks the state could have gotten things together.

“This is already a really stressful time for people. And they don’t seem to have any accountability or any care to make it easier,” Hagstrom said. “Everyone’s stressed out. The least they could do is make the process a little more simple.”

Hagstrom’s state representative, Democrat Jeff Crossman, said his email inbox is filled with similar requests for help. Much of his and his staff’s time has been spent trying to go to bat for people with the state.

State officials are responsive when he calls, but many constituents feel like they’re caught in a game of ping pong when they reach someone.

The state “needs to try to deliver their services more efficiently, more quickly, turn things around a little bit more more quickly,” Crossman said. “That’s my expectation.”