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Many Oregonians Won’t Have to Return Overpaid Jobless Aid

Seven months after the decision was made, thousands of residents do not yet know that they will be able to keep the overpaid jobless aid, thanks to antiquated technology that continues to hobble the unemployment agency.

(TNS) — Oregon lawmakers passed a law last June that gave the state a great deal more latitude to let unemployed people keep their benefits if the state, through applicant or bureaucratic error, paid them too much.

Seven months later, though, thousands of people may not know that the state will waive their debt. The Oregon Employment Department has been implementing the law gradually and is only now beginning to notify people who may qualify. The work won’t be done until the end of February.

“We could not immediately start providing waivers under state law because we had to develop the framework under which we could do that,” said Sara Cromwell, deputy director for benefits in the department’s unemployment insurance division.

The employment department, hamstrung by obsolete technology and still digging out from the unprecedented surge of pandemic-era jobless claims, took months to adopt a policy to determine who qualifies and a mechanism for actually waiving their debt.

In the meantime, some people who received too much jobless aid have been unaware that they may be eligible to have their debt wiped out, even in cases when the overpayment resulted from their own honest mistake.

People must apply for the waiver, which for some could erase several thousand dollars of debt.

“There’s a human being that underlies every single overpayment decision,” Cromwell said, “so we do our best to make sure we’re acting as promptly as we can under the circumstances.”

Who Qualifies?

The employment department says there are 4,400 Oregonians who received too much aid and might qualify for a waiver. Some won’t qualify because their incomes are too large, but if all of them qualified, Oregon could waive up to $5.8 million.

Like just about everything pertaining to jobless benefits, though, the topic of overpayments and waivers is extremely complex.

Sometimes, the employment department pays benefits to people who aren’t eligible for the money because they’ve submitted fraudulent claims. Those people aren’t eligible for waivers and, depending on the case, can be subject to criminal prosecution.

Sometimes the employment department makes a mistake and pays people more than it should have. Other times, unemployed people make a mistake in their claims – incorrectly describing the circumstances in which they lost their jobs, for example.

The new waiver law potentially applies to both those categories. But not everyone who got too much qualifies for a waiver.

The employment department may waive repayment, according to the new law, if collecting the money is “against equity and good conscience.”

The department set a mathematical standard for applying the Legislature’s “equity and good conscience” clause: People are eligible for waivers if they have no means to repay the benefit and household expenses that exceed 90 percent of their income after subtracting the value of their jobless benefits.


Having set the standard, Oregon must now apply it. And that’s been a slow process, leaving thousands of people who may be eligible for a waiver uncertain of their status.

Marie, who asked to be referred to by her middle name to protect her privacy, lost her job cleaning hotel rooms in Lincoln City when the pandemic hit in March 2020 and shut down the hospitality sector. She filed for unemployment benefits and soon began receiving weekly checks from the state.

Later that year, though, Marie got a notification from the employment department warning her that she hadn’t actually qualified for the jobless benefits that she received. She owed $12,000, by the employment department’s reckoning.

“Honestly, I almost hit the ground. I didn’t know what to do. I cried, I asked why, I had to read it three or four times over,” said Marie, 42. While she’s been back at work since the summer of 2020, she said she’s earning just enough to pay her bills.

“There’s not anything that I pay on my single income that isn’t honestly a necessity,” she said.

While she asked not to have her full name used, the employment department – with Marie’s permission – confirmed details of her case.

The state says the reasons she didn’t qualify for the benefits are complicated.

Marie changed jobs twice in the first months of 2020 and, the department says, misstated the reason she left a job at the beginning of the year. Then, according to the department, Marie hadn’t been working long enough to qualify for unemployment benefits when her hotel job it laid her off that March.

Under ordinary circumstances, the employment department says it probably would have caught the errors promptly. But the pandemic soon overwhelmed the department, which took months to realize that Marie didn’t qualify.

“We were trying to get as much money out the door to help as many people as quickly as possible,” Cromwell said.

The employment department notified Marie in July 2020 that her benefits should have been denied and that she had to pay it all back. She spent the next year appealing the employment department’s decision, which responded by waiving $3,000 in federal benefits. (The department now says that waiver was made in error because of differing federal rules, but Oregon said it won’t try to recoup that money.)

The federal waiver still left Marie owing more than $9,000 to Oregon. The state offered a repayment plan over 53 months, but Marie said she couldn’t possibly have added $175 a month to her expenses.

“It would have been life altering,” she said. “There’s no way I would have been able to pay my rent or pay my bills.”

Last month, though, after The Oregonian/OregonLive inquired about Marie’s case, the state notified her that she qualified for a waiver under June’s legislation. It wiped out her entire debt.

The news came as an enormous relief — Marie said she burst into tears when the employment department called to tell her. But she said the satisfaction of having her debt waived doesn’t erase the stress of having had it hanging over her head for well over a year.

“It was 16 months and 16 days. That’s a long ways. That’s a big chunk, a big chunk of your life. I would not want anyone else to go through what I went through,” Marie said. “I feel like I fought really hard, tooth and nail. Others might not have the fight in them.”

Many people who had received overpayments during the pandemic had their debt automatically deferred. The employment department has been sending out form letters notifying people of the Legislature’s waiver program, and it has included the information on its website and social media accounts. It’s front-and-center on the employment department’s webpage, too.

But only this month, Cromwell said, did the employment department begin to identify which individual benefit recipients may be eligible and invite them to apply for waivers. It expects to complete that work in February.

While it’s been a slow process, she said it’s ultimately a welcome one because the Legislature enabled the department to wipe out the debts of people like Marie who might otherwise face crippling payment obligations.

“It’s really timely to be able to provide some enhanced assistance for people who find themselves with an overpayment,” Cromwell said.

©2022 Advance Local Media LLC. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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