A coalition of advocates has asked Gov. Gretchen Whitmer for relief for unemployment insurance claimants who were retroactively deemed ineligible for benefits and are being asked to repay.
In a letter sent to the governor Tuesday, the advocates asked for waiver applications "under the broadest provisions available" for claimants who received Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) benefits - a federal program that expanded benefits to cover freelancers, contract workers and others who typically wouldn't qualify for regular state benefits - but were later told they may have qualified for benefits under questions that were not provided or approved by the U.S. Department of Labor.
"We are representing Michiganders who have done nothing wrong and they were getting these benefits because they were working and they could no longer work," said Lisa Ruby, a public benefits law attorney with the Michigan Poverty Law Program, one of the entities that signed the letter, along with Michigan United, the Michigan League for Public Policy and the Sugar Law Center for Economic and Social Justice.
"We are getting more and more (repayment) letters and more and more frustrated," Ruby said. She said despite regular calls and meetings with state officials and the governor's office, "We're just not getting answers from them. We just felt like we reached the point where we had to take the next step."
When asked for a comment, a spokesperson for the governor pointed to her comments made Wednesday when asked about the letter following a roundtable with reporters: "I agree with the spirit in which they are pursuing this," Whitmer said of the coalition. She said the state is trying to get a broader waiver from the federal government.
"Hopefully we can get that done because I really don't believe anyone should be on the hook for a policy change that came from the feds and rendered people who thought they were in compliance for no fault of their own," Whitmer said.
A spokesperson for Michigan's Unemployment Insurance Agency said claimants who have received an overpayment letter should visit a webpage called "PUA Overpayment and Restitution" on the agency's website: bit.ly/3qt1Iwi.
In late June, about 690,000 claimants were told they had to answer a revised list of questions and "requalify" for benefits after the U.S. Department of Labor told the agency that it included four questions that were not provided or approved by the department at the inception of the program in March 2020.
The letter led to a flood of calls for help to attorneys specializing in unemployment insurance with claimants confused by the process of requalifying for benefits on their state MiWAM accounts, and who worried that they would be forced to pay back their benefits.
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The state's Unemployment Insurance Agency and the governor characterized the requalification as keeping the state in compliance with federal guidelines and said claimants wouldn't have to pay them back.
But in the letter, the coalition said waivers have only been granted "for a small subset of those it considers a result of 'agency error.' "
"Despite no wrongdoing on the part of the claimants, these notices demand repayment
of amounts often as high as $20,000-$50,000," the letter said.
Ruby said she and a few lawyers associated with the Michigan Poverty Law Program are working with as many as 150 clients who have received overpayment letters.
"Part of what we're saying is: Make it clear to people that you're not going to collect while this is figured out," she said.
Ruby said while claimants can file a protest or a request for a waiver, that doesn't stop collection.
"That's what really sends the fear into individuals' hearts when they get these notices," Ruby said. "It says, 'You owe me $12,000 (for example)' and there's nothing the person can do that stops the collection."
She said part of the reason for the timing of the letter is that people will soon file to get their tax refunds, and that can be seized by the state, along with wages and unemployment benefits they're currently receiving.
Contact Adrienne Roberts: firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Advocates ask Whitmer for waivers for claimants told to repay benefits