WAUKESHA COUNTY — Linda Bakalar of Waukesha County keeps all of her correspondence with Wisconsin's Department of Workforce Development on hand for the times she calls the state agency or lawmakers pleading for help.
"That's all I'm looking for, is to get it solved," said Bakalar, who first applied for unemployment benefits at the start of the pandemic last spring.
Bakalar showed the I-Team the latest letter she received from the DWD.
"It says I owe $16,557 back and it says notice of intent to issue a warrant if it is not paid back within 15 days," she said.
On a fixed income, that amount is staggering and Bakalar can't afford to pay it back, and that warrant threat is even more concerning.
Bakalar tells the I-Team she doesn't have a computer, so when she lost her part-time Sam's Club job last March, a DWD employee filed her claims for her over the phone. She's sure something got lost in translation.
"They said I didn't qualify for anything now because I was on social security disability, and I do have a letter stating I was entitled to the 39 weeks of the PUA benefits," she explained.
The DWD reports for 79,659 claimants were overpaid $66.4 million ($61.9 million was considered nonfraudulent, $4.5 million was considered fraud) in 2020. The state agency says that's 1.4% of the $4.8 billion amount paid.
From the start of 2021 through May, the DWD reports, 36,344 claimants were overpaid a total of $60.8 million ($55.0 million nonfraud, $5.8 million fraud), which is 3.7% of the $1.6 billion amount paid.
"They're garnishing wages, they are siphoning out your bank accounts," said labor attorney, Victor Forberger.
Forberger has seen several cases similar to Bakalar where the amount owed is in the tens of thousands.
"If they don't file the right kind of objection or the right kind of appeal at the right time, they're losing their rights," he said of those accused of being overpaid.
Forberger adds if someone makes an honest mistake while filing claims, they're having to pay for it literally.
Earlier this year, the I-Team reported the U.S. Department of Labor provided guidance to state employment agencies saying they can choose to waive people's overpayments if it's not the person's fault.
A DWD spokesperson told the I-Team,
"Wisconsin did implement this guidance. Individuals who may be eligible are able to request the waiver of repayment of federal monies by completing a questionnaire. In order for the waiver to be granted, the individual must have an overpayment of one of the federal programs, the overpayment was made without claimant fault and it would be contrary to equity and good conscience to require repayment. More information is on our website here: https://dwd.wisconsin.gov/uiben/overpayments/."
"The department should have some leniency and some understanding and try and make it easy for people. Instead it's cumbersome and difficult," said Forberger.
Bakalar is trying to figure out her next step in fighting this overpayment. The ribbon tattoo on her hand is a reminder she beat cancer twice. So, she won't be giving up on this battle either.
"If I do owe something back, that's fine. I don't have an issue paying monthly, but I know I don't owe $16,000 back. If I would have known that all of this would have happened, I would never have applied for anything," she said.
A week after the I-Team interviewed Bakalar, she told us a DWD employee contacted her and told her she is eligible for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance and that her case will be resolved soon.
The agency does waive overpayments if you are eligible. You are also able to appeal an overpayment. For more information, click here.
We also asked the DWD about issuing warrants and how that decision is made. Below is the response a spokesperson provided:
"Most claimants repay their overpayments and a warrant is not issued. For claimants who are unable to repay the overpayment, they are instructed to call the Department and setup a repayment agreement. If the claimant adheres to the repayment agreement, no warrant is issued. Fraud cases may have more strict repayment rules.
Due to the pandemic, we turned off the automated warrant job and relaxed many of the repayment rules. Warrants can still be issued but must now be reviewed by a staff person before issuing the warrant. Staff take into account many factors before warrants are issued.
Claimants are billed monthly. The monthly bill states the following:
If you cannot send the amount requested, please call a Collections Specialist at (608) 266-9701 or email us at email@example.com to make arrangements to pay.
Staff look at a number of factors before issuing a warrant. Here are a few:
- Fraud overpayments have stricter repayment rules than nonfraud.
- If the claimant receives a bill and pays, no warrant is issued.
- If the claimant is unable to pay and has contacted us and established a payment plan, no warrant is issued if payments are being made.
- If the claimant makes no effort to pay or contact us after receiving the benefit overpayment decision and subsequent monthly bills, we will issue a warrant.
- If a claimant establishes a repayment agreement but fails to adhere to it and makes no effort to contact us to request a temporary reduction in payment or to skip a payment, we will issue a warrant.
- Claimants may also apply for a waiver of repayment, which will be granted if certain criteria is met
- Many other factors are looked at such as whether the claimant is working or has Covid.