COLUMBUS — Perhaps thousands of honest Ohioans awarded Pandemic Unemployment Assistance may be forced to repay the state due to miscalculations through no fault of their own.
Colleen Roach applied for PUA funds in March 2020 when her small business was crippled by the COVID-19 outbreak.
In Roach’s case, business picked up three months later and she called the Ohio Department of Jobs and Family Services that oversees the program to inform them that she no longer needed the assistance and requested to be removed from the program and payments stopped.
Instead, they continued and they eventually sent a letter informing her that she now owed $3,366 in overpayments.
“I just wanted to do the honest thing and repay the money,” said Roach.
But even more frustrating, she couldn’t get anyone to tell her how to do it or where to send it.
And for many others, repayment is not an option.
Honest Ohioans who had no role in the miscalculations and believed they were receiving funds they were legitimately entitled to may be on the hook for thousands of dollars and unable to pay.
The Ohio Department of Jobs and Family Services says $413.6 million in PUA overpayments were awarded last year.
The Buckeye Institute tracks government spending and says part of the blame falls on a PUA program that was quickly set up to meet the needs of those unemployed—but failed to provide enough safeguards.
“Drop money from helicopters, shovel the money out the door, and as a consequence—making sure the money was going to the proper people really wasn’t a big concern for the government,” says Rea Hederman Jr., Buckeye Institute Vice President of Policy.
The Century Foundation is another watchdog group that is following how PUA money is being spent and warns that many states, despite recently passed federal legislation that would allow states to waive overpayments, may leave honest recipients holding the bag.
“You don’t want people to have pay back money that’s going to put them out of their home or out of their car,” says Senior Policy Analyst Andrew Stettner.
Stettner says he has consulted with attorneys in Ohio who advise that recipients faced with overpayments letters should at least respond within the allotted time period to acknowledge receipt but warns against repaying “because they have a right to appeal” the overpayments.
The Century Foundation is also supporting new legislation sponsored by Sen. Sherrod Brown that would provide funds to states to improve technology used in the disbursement and tracking of unemployment benefits and eliminate fraud, waste, and errors.
Meanwhile, the Ohio Department of Jobs and Family Services declined to comment directly but says it is working on plans that may include waiving overpayments.
It has also provided a mailing address for those, like Colleen Roach, who are able and willing to return overpayments along with name and contact information:
ODJFS—OUIO Finance Section
P.O. Box 182059
Columbus, Ohio 43218-2059