Thousands of Washington residents receive overpayment notices for unemployment benefits

VIDEO: Thousands receive overpayment notices for unemployment benefits

Many people who have depended on unemployment benefits for months due to the pandemic impacting their jobs are experiencing a frightening new road bump: demands from the state’s Employment Security Department to repay that money.

Battling overpayment notices from the ESD has become a family affair for Jennifer Taylor and her daughters. Her younger daughter, Justine Vassallo, got an overpayment notice for about $2600 first.

Older daughter Julia Vassallo received an even bigger one.

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“It says, ‘$3,005 overpayment fee,’” Julia Vassallo said. “‘Click here to pay now,’ and I was like — excuse me?”

Jennifer Taylor describes fighting off a rising wave of worry.

“I’m panicking. First of all, where are we going to come up with this money to repay the unemployment?” Taylor said. “We don’t have that kind of money to be paying back almost $6,000.”

Vassallo worked full time at the ThunderDome Car Museum in Enumclaw but needed unemployment benefits when it had to shut down due to the pandemic.

“Why are there hundreds if not thousands of people getting these overpayment notices for claims that have been approved?” Taylor asked.

KIRO 7 discovered others are dealing with even bigger demands.

“It says I have to be able to pay back around $15,000,” Kevin Chanthavong said, reading off the statement from his online ESD account. “Like, how am I supposed to pay that back?”

Chanthavong told KIRO 7 he worked as a machine operator in Seattle until the pandemic led to layoffs. He received messages that ESD is working on his claim. But in the meantime, all his weekly claims are marked as disqualified, and he’s not receiving any payments.

Blake Whitmore received a bill for more than $14,000 in early November.

“I’m like, that can’t be the case,” they said.

Whitmore and their husband depended on months of federal Pandemic Unemployment Assistance money, known as PUA, when Whitmore’s employer Specialty’s Café & Bakery went under.

Whitmore eventually found a new job this fall and stopped filing. They missed a notice on their online account dated Nov. 1. It was asking for more information by Nov. 6.

Now the account states Whitmore owes thousands of dollars.

“It definitely peaks my anxiety and is nerve-wracking,” Whitmore said. “We needed that money to live these past few weeks.”

“Why are so many people getting hit with these overpayment bills?” KIRO 7 reporter Linzi Sheldon asked ESD Commissioner Suzi LeVine.

LeVine said it’s not exactly simple.

Whitmore was part of a group of 26,000 people on the federal PUA benefits who might actually qualify for regular state unemployment instead. A person can’t be on the federal program if they qualify for state unemployment insurance. But ESD needed more information from Whitmore and others before it could switch over the claim.

“Why [were there] only five days for people to answer this?” Sheldon asked.

“That’s based on a tremendous amount of learning over many years that people will respond quickly or they won’t respond at all,” LeVine said.

But half of the 26,000 people, including Blake Whitmore, didn’t respond.

“They should file the appeal. And then soon, we will be following up with further instruction,” LeVine said. “We are going to be holding on to these in a very specific queue for a set of folks who are going to be able to review these in particular … most people will not have to pay an overpayment.”

That’s good news if you’re part of that group impacted in November.

The Unemployment Law Project recently posted to TiktTok to provide guidance for people in that group. And Anne Paxton, with the ULP, said others should plan to appeal, too, even if they’re still trying to get through to ESD on the phone.

“You can do that for a while before your deadline arrives to file an appeal, but you have 30 days,” Paxton said. “We can give you free advice and possibly representation at the Unemployment Law Project if you call us.”

As for Jennifer Taylor and her daughters, Justine Vassallo got her overpayment problem solved when she got through to ESD on the phone late this summer.

Julia Vassallo finally got in front of an appeals judge on Nov. 16. The judge ruled in her favor, and her overpayment notice has disappeared. She just recently started receiving her stalled benefits again.

The ESD stated it paused sending out overpayment notices to figure out how to do this better.

An ESD spokesperson told KIRO 7 this week that in the next several days, the department will be sending people the request to apply for that potential new claim again. He said the ESD needs people to “file for a potential new claim based on the information we have about their earnings to ensure they are on the correct benefit. If they disagree with the decision after applying for a new claim, they of course still have the right to appeal that decision through the standard process.” This means people will want to keep an eye on their accounts and their emails.

ESD officials said in some cases, people may owe the difference if they received more money on PUA and show they have been on regular benefits at a lower weekly rate.