The new year brings new hope for financially strapped Illinois residents who suddenly received letters saying they owed the state thousands of dollars.
Last fall, emails from the Illinois Department of Employment Security started arriving in the inboxes of people who received pandemic unemployment assistance, or PUA, notifying them that they were overpaid and now have to pay that money back.
“Everything was just kind of going along as it should, and then all of a sudden you get this letter and my stomach drops, saying that you know we owe $6,006,” said photographer Andrew Young who immediately lost work last March when the state’s stay-at-home order went into effect.
He chose to not to immediately repay the so-called PUA overpayments, so instead, 25% of his benefits were garnished each month.
That was not the case for Karen of North Chicago. The freelance employee received her letter requesting her to pay back $1,721, and she wrote a check within days.
It was immediately cashed, but she says her account was not credited.
“Looking back, it didn’t turn out to be the right decision” she says.
That’s because she was hit with a double whammy: without the credit to her account, the state started garnishing her benefits.
“I couldn't understand because it was nothing that I initially asked for; it was their calculations in setting the amount to be paid,” she said.
Now, thanks to language deep inside the second Stimulus Relief Bill signed in December, claimants like Karen and Andrew could now be off the hook for the overpayment.
New language in the U.S. Department of Labor’s PUA Operating Instructions reads, “Authority to Waive Overpayments (new). Section 201(d) of the Continued Assistance Act amends Section 2102(d) of the CARES Act and authorizes states to waive the repayment if the state determines that the payment of PUA was without fault on the part of any such individual and such repayment would be contrary to equity and good conscience.”
NBC 5 Responds reached out to IDES to confirm if Illinois will be one of the states that will waive these overpayments. A spokesperson from the department responded with this statement:
“IDES is preparing to work with PUA claimants who, according to federal guidelines, may be eligible for a waiver of overpayment. The federal guidance does require states to review each overpayment on a case-by-case basis, and IDES is committed to doing this in a way that provides the least amount of disruption for claimants seeking a waiver. Please keep in mind the haphazard way in which the Trump administration rolled-out the PUA program resulted in states being required to verify all claimants’ wages after some payments were received, resulting in the issuance of overpayments.”
The change in policy is good news for those who received letters requesting thousands of dollars, but according to Michele Evermore of the National Employment Law Project in Washington, DC, it will not happen overnight.
“It'll take a while to get all of these overpayments waived and they have to be waived one by one, and not in a block, which is really unfortunate. It’s going to take a lot of time to get through the, the backlog of overpayment waivers now,” warns Evermore.
And the key word now is patience, Evermore says.
“Best advice for those people who have that overpayment demand that is haunting them and sitting in a drawer and they're thinking should I pay it, they should just stay in a waiting pattern right now. Right, and wait for guidance from the state agency about whether or not they're eligible for a waiver,” she said.
“No individual will be forced to repay alleged overpayments without a hearing. I will continue to do everything I can to make sure that those applicants who did everything right in applying for emergency benefits are treated fairly under the law,” Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-IL), who proposed language in the bill as part of theRelief for Working Families Act, said.