I’ve been handling employment and labor cases for a quarter of a century. In that time I’ve helped lots of folks with unemployment claims.
Out of the hundreds of cases I have handled, I only had one that involved a claimed overpayment of benefits in those twenty-five years.
Overpayments usually happen because an employee who is not eligible receives benefits anyway. Often fraud is involved. But most folks follow the rules, so it has been a rare occurrence in my practice.
That all changed in 2021. That is because in 2020 thousands of Connecticut residents applied for unemployment benefits – many for the first times in their lives – after getting forced from work by the COVID-19 pandemic.
And in the last several months I have had more than a dozen folks call me after receiving notices from the unemployment compensation administrator that they had been overpaid benefits and that they were actually ineligible for benefits. And now they owe thousands of dollars back.
Each case has basically gone like this:
After COVID hit, the employees were working in positions in which they faced likely exposure to the virus. Each of the employees fell into a high-risk class based on CDC guidelines either because of age or underlying medical conditions, or they cared for someone who was deemed to be at high risk.
In almost every situation, each employee approached the employer and asked for an accommodation – either work from home, provision of PPE, or distancing within the workplace - so that that they could continue working. In each case the employer said there was nothing it could do.
So the employees felt that they had no choice but to quit because they were facing potential fatal exposure to a virus that we knew even less about then than what we know about it now.
These job losses were occasioned in every case through no fault of the employees. If not for the pandemic, each employee would have continued to perform his work without skipping a beat.
Instead, a completely unanticipated event changed the playing field for everybody and these workers faced the choice of deciding between their health and their loved one’s health or continued work.
Congress quickly passed bipartisan legislation, recognizing that the pandemic was nobody’s fault, so that individuals would not have to take on greater burdens than the medical and physical ones that the virus was imposing.
In April and May last year, lots of folks applied for unemployment, and the administrator almost uniformly found the employees eligible. But then employers, who were suddenly seeing their unemployment tax rates rise, began appealing the decisions in May and June claiming that the employees were not eligible for benefits because their jobs were still available. This, of course, did not take into account the argument that the jobs were no longer safe to do.
The appeals got filed, but the unemployment referees did not act on them in a timely manner because so many were getting filed, and staffing had plummeted due to the pandemic. Finally, when vaccinations started becoming available, the backlog started to decline, and all of these previously eligible folks started getting notices that they owed sometimes twenty or thirty thousand dollars in overpayments because they had been getting paid benefits for almost a year.
They should not have to pay the money back. They did nothing wrong. The unemployment compensation administration is not equipped to handle this unprecedented problem.
It is time for the General Assembly to take a look at this problem and fix it now.