senator julie kushner
Sen. Julie Kushner, Sen. Jorge Cabrera, and Rep. Robyn Porter discuss overpayments Credit: Christine Stuart / CTNewsJunkie

Lawmakers were fielding hundreds of calls in 2020 from residents who were unemployed due to the pandemic and unable to pay the bills. 

Now the Department of Labor is saying some of those people may have been paid too much and they want some of that money back. 

Tasha Pettway said she was surprised to learn she owes more than $3,000 to the Department of Labor because she reported her wages to the state every week. 

“I can’t  afford to pay what they are asking. They have even threatened to garnish me as of the last 3 weeks I have barely worked due to my shifts being canceled,” Pettway said. 

She said she’s been trying to get answers but when you call the Department of Labor there’s still no one available to answer your questions. 

Tens of thousands of Connecticut residents are being asked to pay back anywhere from $30 to $30,000 in unemployment the Department of Labor says they should not have received during the pandemic. The state has estimated it may have made $8.7 million in overpayments.

“This pandemic created havoc for so many people. So many working families suffered,” Sen. Julie Kushner, D-Danbury, said. 

Lawmakers said they want those who receive these overpayment letters to know they can apply for a waiver to forgive it or they can appeal it. 

A spokeswoman for the Department of Labor says they identified about 100,000 cases of potential fraud. But most overpayment cases are the result of human error. 

Sometimes employers dispute a claim, but benefits may have already been paid. In other cases, the applicant made an error in filling out the paperwork and in still other cases the department made a mistake.

“We don’t want to see working families, people who are struggling to get back on their feet have the kind of set back that will affect all of our communities,” Kushner said. 

Juliet Manalan, a spokesman for the department, said they agree.

“We couldn’t agree more that this pandemic has damaged our workforce and our business community; it’s one of the reasons we applaud Governor Lamont’s decision to ensure that the Connecticut workforce had access to all the federal benefits available and right up to the federal deadline for eligibility. All labor agencies are required to follow state and federal law when it comes to administering unemployment programs and stewarding the Trust Fund; we report on that data frequently,” Manalan said.

Kushner said they are considering using federal funds to make sure some of these individuals don’t have to repay the money because they don’t want to impact the unemployment trust fund and the bottom line of employers. 

“What happens with those need to be determined on a case-by-case basis,” Eric Gjede, vice president of government affairs for the Connecticut Business and Industry Association, said. 

Gjede says he’s happy to hear lawmakers are looking to federal funds to cover those overpayments they plan to forgive. 

“Employers are already going to be burdened with paying all the federal borrowing that went on to make sure those claims were paid out,” Gjede says. 

Rep. Robyn Porter, D-New Haven, said “we need to make sure that whatever the solution is that all parties, that all stakeholders are made whole and that does include employers.” 

Sen. Rob Sampson, the ranking Republican on the Labor Committee, said “While I don’t think the government should have been giving away free money, I agree with Rep. Porter and Sen. Kushner that they cannot ask for it back.”

A spokesman for House Speaker Matt Ritter said they need more time to understand the problem before addressing it, so it’s unlikely to be raised during next week’s special session.