After Rich Kurth lost almost all of his income when his work as a self-employed graphic designer dried up due to the pandemic, he started receiving funds from Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) claims in April. But in October, he received an email stating that he owed $13,696 to the Montana Department of Labor and Industry (DLI).
Rich and his wife, Marti, who works in public relations and is also self-employed, both initially received $184 each per week. But that money stopped on Aug. 1, when the Kurths received a notice saying they were “under review.” Now, Rich is being asked to pay back those funds with no explanation as to why.
“In October we received a notice that I was blocked and they wouldn’t accept any more weekly reports and that I owed $13,696,” Rich said.
Rich is among a number of Montanans who now owe money to the DLI. State Unemployment Insurance (UI) Administrator Paul Martin says overpayments are fairly common in any UI program, but since the PUA program is new and the DLI has been overloaded with claims, there are more overpayments than usual.
“PUA is a self-certifying program and those claims were filed in masses at the beginning of the pandemic,” Martin said. “The speed at which we were moving this year, we didn’t get to everything right away. We looked as soon as we could, but it was a daunting amount of information we had to pore through.”
As DLI workers went back through old claims, they found that some of those recipients weren’t technically eligible for the funds they received. Since claims are filed weekly, Martin said some recipients might have been eligible during some weeks, but not in others, and were still receiving funds anyway. Eligibility is based on a person’s circumstances and if that eligibility maintains from week to week, he said.
“It’s just a certain number of people who weren’t eligible to begin with or fell out of eligibility,” Martin said.
And since the PUA program is new this year and people had to self-certify their lost wages, it resulted in overpayments.
“Any Unemployment Insurance program will have overpayments,” Martin said. “PUA was new to all of us, but someone in PUA might have never had a UI claim and they were unfamiliar with the process.”
After the DLI wouldn’t accept any more of Rich’s PUA weekly reports in October, he was told to start filing for UI instead. While he still owes PUA money, he is now supposed to be receiving UI payments dating back to February when he lost his income. Instead of receiving $784 a week through the PUA program, he’ll be getting $769 a week through UI.
Rich has thought about appealing the claim, but as of now he’s not going forward with a hearing because he will soon be receiving backlogged UI funds to replace the PUA funds he owes.
“We’re OK so far,” Rich said. “Hopefully we can pay PUA, even though the lawyer said I might have to consult him again. We don’t want to double dip.”
“Anybody who disagrees with a decision for unemployment has a right to appeal,” Martin said.
In addition to UI claims, the DLI recently added a fifth program to help people affected by the pandemic. The Interim Pandemic Assistance program was added to the department, which adds an extra $200 per week for claimants starting Nov. 28 and ending Dec. 19.
The money, which comes from the state’s Coronavirus Relief Funds, will be used to help anyone filing for pandemic-related claims, including anyone in the PUA or UI programs.
To file a claim, visit http://uid.dli.mt.gov/.