State seeks federal waiver for jobless overpayments | News

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BOSTON — The Baker administration is seeking a waiver from the federal government to reduce the amount of “overpayments” Massachusetts’ jobless claimants owe for pandemic-related unemployment benefits.

In a letter to U.S. Labor Secretary Marty Walsh, Secretary of the Massachusetts Executive Office of Labor and Workforce Development Roslin Acosta called for a blanket waiver for all non-fraudulent unemployment overpayments made through the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation and two other federal pandemic-related unemployment programs.

Acosta wrote that the biggest driver of overpayments among Massachusetts claimants were changes in federal guidance for the PUA program. Those changes resulted in overpayment determinations for more than $1 billion in already paid claims.

“While this measure was meant to address the problems with fraud that had developed in the program, one unintended result was that legitimate claimants were automatically determined to be overpaid,” she wrote.

Acosta said those changes disproportionately impacted Massachusetts because it was among the first states to roll out the federal unemployment programs in response to a tidal wave of jobless claims related to pandemic restrictions.

The state Department of Unemployment Assistance is currently working through more than 300,000 applications for waivers from the overpayments.

“That process is laborious for the agency and can be frustrating for the claimant,” she wrote. “Further, requiring claimants to apply for waivers may present obstacles to underserved communities who were particularly hard hit during the pandemic.”

The Biden administration has granted waivers for some categories of no-fault overpayments but that has had little impact on Massachusetts, she added.

Two weeks ago, members of the state Legislature’s Joint Committee on Labor and Workforce Development called on the Baker administration to pause collection for “non-fault” overpayments from workers until the end of July.

Lawmakers also urged the state agency to “make full use” of the new U.S. Labor Department guidance for extending overpayment waivers and requesting blanket waivers.

Acosta said the state has already applied for a “narrower “waiver specifically for claimants who currently owe non-fault overpayments.

Massachusetts paid out an unprecedented $6 billion in jobless benefits over the past two years as hundreds of thousands of workers were sidelined by government-imposed shutdowns meant to stop the spread of COVID-19. The state borrowed more than $2.2 billion from the federal government to continue paying claims.

Meanwhile, the state is also trying to recoup estimated $2.6 billion in overpayments made to laid-off workers who over the past two years received jobless benefits for which they were later determined to be ineligible.

In some cases, those who applied for unemployment benefits believed they qualified, but were not. Others made good-faith mistakes by improperly filling out the required forms. In other cases, clerical errors were made by state DUA in the rush to approve a tidal wave of unemployment claims.

But as Acosta points out in her request that the majority of cases involve the Department of Labor’s changes in guidance that are now forcing individual workers to repay thousands — in some cases tens of thousands — of dollars they thought they were entitled to.

Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group’s newspapers and websites. Email him at cwade@northofboston.com.

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