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State agency overpaid $20.2 million in unemployment in 7 months in Arizona

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Posted at 9:33 PM, Dec 03, 2020
and last updated 2020-12-05 13:57:12-05

Arizona’s Department of Economic Security paid out more than $20 million in overpayments in unemployment within seven months, according to officials.

ABC15 has learned that DES estimates there are approximately 21,000 unemployment overpayments that have been made to those filing in Arizona.

A Mesa mother said she received a letter from DES in November telling her that she received an overpayment of Unemployment Insurance benefits.

“I feel like they’re pretty much passing the blame on to us,” said Kim Rohr. “I determined it would be roughly $6,000, that in itself is really concerning.”

Rohr, like so many, who struggled to get help from DES during the beginning of the pandemic, relied on calling the agency daily and waiting on hold for hours, “you wait on hold to talk to someone who can’t answer one single question and its as if they don’t have access to this, they’re not trained, it's just like there’s a warm body put on that phone.”

A spokesperson for DES tells ABC15 that there are several ways that overpayments happen:

  • Of the total, 44.3% were fraud overpayments (claimant knowingly misrepresented or concealed information),
  • 51.4% were non-fraud overpayments (claimant provided incomplete or inaccurate information),
  • 4.3% were administrative overpayments (an overpayment created without any fault on the part of the claimant).

“The overpayment amounts from March 1 through October 31 total approximately $20.2 million. November data will not be available until mid-December,” the email said.

Rohr was accused of being in the ‘fraud’ category for overpayments. In a letter to her it stated, ‘you intentionally failed to report that you were eligible for regular unemployment benefits.’

The Mesa woman said she was only applying to which programs she was directed to by employees on the other end of the phone.

“I think the part that really hurt the most is when you have a letter there saying that you intentionally did something to fraud the system, that I knowingly, intentionally made a decision to file for unemployment when I knowingly knew I was not qualified for that benefit,” she said.

Attorney Nina Targovnik with Community Legal Services said DES failed users like Rohr because they had a system that was not user-friendly that would help people understand if they were eligible or not.

Targovnik adds that outdated systems and untrained employees attributed to the issues, “part of the problem was DES was swamped with people applying for PUA and they hired workers who weren’t trained who told people to just apply and people relied on these workers, and now DES is going back and auditing what they did.”

ABC15 asked if this is fair to the people who will now have to pay back the money, “Unfortunately we have a legal system and not a fairness system, so no it’s not fair, but it’s legal, it’s the way the law was written,” said Targovnik.

Targovnik said people who receive a letter from DES for overpayments have 15 days to appeal the ruling.

DES said in a statement, “DES takes every possible step to prevent and reduce the frequency of overpayment situations, including working to educate claimants applying for unemployment, educating employers that report information about their employees to DES and carefully training our staff.”

They also add that people who need to pay back overpayments can set up payment plans, “The Department is sensitive to the impact overpayment situations can have on claimants and we do all we can to assist in these situations while following federal and state laws. Claimants with overpayments are able to enter into a repayment plan with the Department to repay the overpayment amount over time.”