If losing a job amid the coronavirus pandemic wasn't stressful enough, tens of thousands of out-of-work Texans also have been notified that they received too much money in unemployment benefits and now are in debt to the state.
The Texas Workforce Commission says it has overpaid a total of $203 million to about 185,000 people from March 1 through Sept. 15 while attempting to quickly get state and federal benefits to those in need.
The figures are relatively small fractions of both the total amount that has been disbursed and the total number of people who have received benefits.
According to data supplied by the commission, it has paid out a whopping $30.1 billion in benefits, putting the overpayment amount at less than 1% of that total. The agency said it has processed an estimated 4.9 million claims, putting the notices of overpayments at 3.8% of those claims.
But such statistics are scant consolation to Texans who have been told they now owe money for benefits they thought were intended to help them weather a coronavirus-induced financial calamity and in many cases have already spent.
"The person is then on the hook for what they needed as a desperately needed lifeline," said Kathryn Youker, an attorney who oversees the labor and employment group at Texas RioGrande Legal Aid. "It's a terrible insult to injury when someone gets unemployment benefits and then the Texas Workforce Commission later determines that they were not in fact eligible."
The commission has said it temporarily suspended efforts to recoup overpayments six months ago because of the pandemic, although the agency says it is notifying people about the overpayments and asking that they come up with repayment plans. It has information on its website regarding the suspension of collections.
But Youker - whose nonprofit organization provides free legal services for low-income people and is helping clients appeal overpayment determinations - said the notices she has seen direct recipients to pay up.
In a notice received by a Texas RioGrande client in August that she shared with the American-Statesman, the commission stated unequivocally that the "action required" was to "repay the overpayment" or see subsequent benefits docked until the balance hits zero.
In addition to what Youker called the agency's mixed message, she said it has been making an increased number of mistakes in determining overpayments during the pandemic.