Anchorage resident Becky Phillips collected unemployment benefits for months after losing her job in March during the COVID-19 pandemic. She used the money for rent, other bills and expenses for her newborn daughter, Allison.
But in October, she opened a letter from the state saying she needed to return three months of checks, nearly $3,500.
“My heart just fell out of my gut,” said Phillips, 28. “We spent that money.”
Phillips and several other Alaskans, in interviews with the Daily News, said the state unexpectedly asked them to return weekly benefits they received during the pandemic, in some cases more than $10,000.
State officials say the actions are not new to the pandemic. Patsy Westcott, director of the state labor department’s Division of Employment and Training Services, said beneficiaries receiving payments are sometimes found to be ineligible or overpaid.
“That isn’t unique to COVID and the current situation,” she said in an email.
But the recipients say it is especially painful now, amid the current coronavirus surge in Alaska that has brought growing health concerns and business closures that have limited work opportunities — and while other government benefits have run out. They say they filed paperwork accurately and honestly, often with the help of state unemployment officials, and have little money to repay anyone.
Westcott did not respond to a request to be interviewed and declined to answer several questions, including how many people in Alaska need to pay back benefits.
Soaring joblessness has forced the agency to add new employees, new requirements and even a new program for self-employed people, after Congress boosted unemployment benefits in March. This fall, the state cited technical glitches when it delayed issuing a temporary $300 boost to checks, long after it was promised to recipients.
Despite the challenges the state has faced, Lennon Weller, an economist with the state labor department, said the percent of disputes over benefits eligibility, out of the total number of unemployment claims, has actually fallen.
Disputes between the state and individuals can occur over factors such as whether an employee was fired or laid off, or over how much they made in a given period.
In October, the state reported 224 appeals, or .6% of all claims. Last October, there were 134 appeals, or 1.4% of claims.
The state has become more flexible during the COVID-19 era, based on data he has seen, Weller said.
Alex Meier, an attorney in Atlanta focusing on pandemic assistance for Seyfarth Shaw, an international law firm dealing with labor and employment issues, said the sudden rush of joblessness in March forced unemployment agencies nationwide to issue aid quickly. That has led to more mistakes on both sides, and sometimes more fraud.
But those are rare exceptions, he said. The programs largely appear to work properly.
The letter Phillips received from the…
Go to the news source: These Alaskans on unemployment say they did what officials asked — but the state…