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Days before Christmas, a letter: Repay your unemployment benefits

Matt Kempner, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on

Published in Business News

Ford Fry, the successful chef and leader of Rocket Farm, did not answer questions about how many of its employees faced similar issues. But in a text message he wrote that the company “has been investigating potential issues with reporting wages” to the labor department. “We take this seriously and are actively working to fully understand the issues and their impact.”

He said the company is “aware that some corrections will be necessary” and intends ”to cover any resulting interest or monetary fines those employees might face as a result.”

Kersha Cartwright, a spokeswoman for the state department of labor, said Rocket Farm appeared to have filed claims on behalf of fewer than 100 employees, perhaps about 75.

Early in the pandemic, plenty of workers who lost hours or jobs sometimes struggled to understand how much they were supposed to get in unemployment, including when factoring in new and expanded benefit programs. And far more people were seeking benefits than ever before.

Georgia’s labor department staff was overwhelmed. For months it was virtually impossible for many people to reach a human at the department. Many Georgians complained that their claims often went unpaid for weeks or months, sometimes because of small mistakes in filings. State officials, meanwhile, tried to deal with the onslaught, even as they worried about protecting against potential fraud.

In recent months, Georgia’s weekly claims for unemployment benefits have returned to pre-pandemic levels of 5,000 or less, after reaching nearly 400,000 in April 2020 and regularly topping 20,000 in the first half of 2021. The Rocket Farm payments dispute suggests the state department of labor is still working through mountains of filings related to claims.

 

Rocket Farm isn’t the only company in Georgia that has faced issues tied to overpayments, according to Cartwright. She said she could not say how many Rocket Farm workers or other Georgians had received so-called determination letters from the department seeking overpayments tied to claims filed by their employers. She wrote that the department doesn’t code information in a way to make that possible.

But she shared statistics suggesting that employee error — rather than employer error — was the source of the vast majority of more than 50,000 non-fraud overpayments of regular unemployment benefits discovered during much of the pandemic.

After the AJC queried the labor department about cases involving Whiteman and Richardson-Jackson, the department waived the penalties after “it was determined it was not fraud” on their part, Cartwright said.

She pointed out that workers confronted by the state related to overpayment of unemployment benefits can file appeals or waivers. The state is legally obligated to seek reimbursement of overpaid unemployment benefits, she said. “We need the money back so we can put it back where it belongs.”

Whiteman left Rocket Farm in early 2021 and now works for an online beauty company. Richardson-Jackson left last August and is employed by a medical lab that does COVID testing.

©2022 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Visit at ajc.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.