Jiyeon Seuchting lost her job as a restaurant server shortly after the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Like thousands of other Hawaii residents, she’s had to navigate the state’s unemployment insurance system ever since.
However, Seuchting said she hasn’t received a UI payment since October, when the jobless claim she had filed abruptly stalled. As far as she can tell — from one of the few times she’s been able to get through on the state’s overwhelmed customer service line — her claim was flagged when she mistakenly failed to declare $300 in emergency pay from her former employer.
“We overpaid you,’” Seuchting recalled the phone agent telling her. “I was like, ‘What should I do?’ They were like, ‘You should just wait.’”
The agent also told her that the Department of Labor and Industrial Relations would mail a form that she could fill out to resolve the problem. That form never arrived, Seuchting said. The $300 discrepancy has prevented her from receiving an additional $10,000 or so in subsequent UI payments over the past five months, she added.
An untold number of unemployed Hawaii residents continue to face similar so-called “overpayment” issues, where snafus involving just a few hundred dollars have prevented claimants and their families from receiving thousands of dollars in additional payments.
The problem dominates much of the discussion at the Hawaii Unemployment Updates and Support Group, its moderators say. The Facebook group has now grown to more than 26,000 members.
Anne Perreira-Eustaquio, DLIR’s director, said she’s not sure how many claims are currently on hold due to overpayment problems. The agency’s computer programmers are too busy building systems to pay claimants with the state’s antiquated mainframe, so they haven’t had time to start collecting such data, she said.
However, anyone trying to advance from the state’s regular UI system to the federally-funded Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation program is going to run into problems if they’re flagged for overpayment. PEUC was created last year to provide the nation’s jobless with more COVID-relief.
“It’s the PEUC program that created this hold,” Perreira-Eustaquio said. Specifically, she cited language in an April 20 memo from the U.S. Department of Labor that she said prevents DLIR from paying out federal dollars until any outstanding overpayment issues from the state’s regular UI system are resolved.
The Unemployment Insurance Program Letter from April states that PEUC dollars go to claimants who “have exhausted all rights to regular compensation under state law.” That includes overpayment issues, she said.
“It would be so much easier to let people move on,” Perreira-Eustaquio said. “I want to pay them, I want to get them moving on. That would’ve been ideal, but that’s not what we were mandated to do through these requirements.”
Similarly, in California, officials with the Employment Development Department, which manages the state’s UI program, said their claimants flagged for overpayment aren’t able to move onto PEUC without reconciling the situation first.
With the lack of data, it’s not clear how many overpayment problems DLIR typically resolves each day. Part of what makes the overpayment cases tricky, Perreira-Eustaquio said, is that her agency’s examiners have to determine whether fraud occurred.
She acknowledged, however, that in some cases a claimant’s former employer causes the overpayment problem, such as when it mistakenly reports the wrong wages. In those situations, claimants still have to wait until an adjudicator clears them and are powerless to expedite things.
“By law, we have to provide both parties due process,” Perreira-Eustaquio said.
In the meantime, DLIR continues to try to bulk up its total roster of examiners, to resolve overpayment issues as quickly as possible. The agency currently has 81 such examiners, or adjudicators, working statewide, Perreira-Eustaquio said.
She added that she understands the public’s frustration that DLIR hasn’t been able to provide better data on claims flagged by overpayment.
“We’re so struggling with that. I wish I could provide all the numbers that are needed to understand this system,” Perreira-Eustaquio said Thursday. “We wish we could provide better data. We can’t even tell internally what that data is.”
It’s clear that there’s been a huge local outcry over the overpayment claims so there would be “no sense in hiding it,” she added, referring to the data.
Meanwhile, Seuchting and her husband, Bryan, say they’ve managed to get by thus far but that they’ll have to forgo their studies at Kapiolani Community College if Jiyeon’s payments don’t come through soon.
“We’re thankful that we’ve been able to get the UI benefits that we’ve been able to receive. We’re lucky that we have savings … but a lot of people don’t,” Bryan said Wednesday. DLIR’s “inability to handle the volume is affecting people’s lives. I know other states are having problems, but others are handling it. It would be nice for them to figure it out.”
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