MICHIGAN, USA — Bonnie VanSledright worked a full-time retail job during the pandemic. In March of 2020, her hours got cut. That June, she was fully laid off. Unemployment benefits allowed her to buy groceries and pay bills while she searched for another source of income.
"I spent my time just looking for full-time jobs," she said. "I wasn’t going out buying things that I shouldn’t. I was looking for a job because I didn’t want to be sitting at home anymore."
Eventually, she found a part-time job but still relied on unemployment to fill in the gaps. In February of 2021, she was told to re-apply for benefits.
"It was really confusing online so I ended up calling in and got to speak to an agent at unemployment." She was able to fill out her reapplication forms through the phone with that agent.
Weeks later, VanSledright got a letter saying she had voluntarily quit a job (specifically the one she was working part-time) - making her ineligible for unemployment benefits. But, she hadn't, leading her to believe there was an error made by the agent who helped her fill out the forms.
Immediately she filed a protest, but in the ten months since it was submitted, it has not been addressed. Now, she's getting monthly letters saying she needs to pay back every cent of the money she collected during the pandemic, totaling $24,935.
"This morning, I woke up with this extreme anxiety because I have this looming over my head," VanSledright said. "And there’s nothing I can do about it. I can’t get any answers. I don’t even try to call anymore because they’re not helpful."
VanSledright is not the only one in this situation. A National Audit of unemployment fraud found Michigan's UIA overpaid upwards of $8.5 Billion in misrepresented or fraudulent claims. In the initial response letter from the state, a footnote added that at least $3.7 billion had already been waived due to errors on the part of the UIA through hardship waivers.
"We have never seen the scale of people who have purposefully and intentionally lied and committed fraud against that system," said Lt. Governor Garlin Gilchrist II.
In response to that fraud and misrepresentation, Governor Whitmer issued an executive order creating a taskforce specifically designed to crack down on fraud and misrepresentation.
"Why that really angers me," Gilchrist said. "Is because it makes it more difficult for families like the ones who you’re describing, that have legitimate claims to these resources who need these resources. It makes it more difficult for them to get what is theirs."
At the time the executive order was issued, 50 people had been charged with Unemployment fraud, and 37 cases were still pending. Gilchrist said the taskforce has been found to be 99.5% effective at combating UI fraud.
But VanSledright and others in her position didn't commit fraud, yet they are still without answers. The state has laid out steps to fight incorrect claims of overpayment, but if not addressed quickly or correctly, The UIA website states it could result in the following:
- Garnishment of your wages.
- Interception of your federal and State of Michigan income tax refunds.
- Forfeiture of lottery winnings over $1,000.
- Referral for criminal prosecution as a felony.
- Denial of future jobless benefit payments.
Before it gets to that point, there are a few ways to fight those letters. Most can be done online through the state's MiWAM, or Michigan Web Account Manager.
The information below is taken directly from the Unemployment Agency's Website, and can be found by clicking this link:
Can I Protest An Overpayment Decision?
If you disagree with the determination or redetermination on whether you are eligible to receive benefits, you may submit a statement protesting the decision. You have 30 days from the date on determination or redetermination letter mailed to you to explain why you disagree with the decision. If it's beyond the 30 days, you also need to explain why you missed the deadline. See Page 81 of the MiWAM Toolkit for Claimants for details.
You submit a protest through your MIWAM account:
- Click on the PUA claim ID to view the details.
- Click on "Determination Status", and then on "file a protest" or "file appeal" for the issue you wish to protest.
- Complete all the required fields and use the "add" feature to include any documentation or evidence you would like to include with your protest.
- When you file a protest, do not request at the same time a hardship waiver (see below). A waiver cannot be considered until a restitution decision is finalized.
An administrative law judge will make a ruling in your case.
What If I Lose My Protest And Appeal?
You can request a restitution waiver for financial hardship. You can make the request from the UI Claim screen in MiWAM under the Claimant Services tab. When you file a protest, do not request at the same time a hardship waiver. A waiver cannot be considered until a restitution decision is finalized. You can only apply for a waiver every six months. Continue to monitor your MiWAM account and make sure your contact information is updated in case you are contacted for additional information. See Page 89 of the MiWAM Toolkit for Claimants for instructions on how to request a hardship waiver.
How Long Does The Protest Process Take?
Due to the high volume of claims and dependent on UIA staff workloads, this process may take longer than under normal circumstances. Ideally, protests can take 30 days to be resolved, but often take longer. Check your MiWAM account for status updates.
What If My Waiver Is Denied?
You can protest the waiver denial by filing UIA Form 1795. If again denied, contact the UI Benefit Overpayment Collection Unit at 1-866-500-0017 or go through your MiWAM account to arrange repayment terms. Interest is charged on overpayments at a rate of one percent per month, accruing daily until the total amount due is paid.
►Make it easy to keep up to date with more stories like this. Download the 13 ON YOUR SIDE app now.