She quit her job to care for her children during COVID. Now, Wisconsin demands $30K repayment for unemployment benefits.

MADISON, Wis. — When Dominique Aldridge quit her job as a certified nursing assistant in Green Bay last March, it was because her three young children–two of them school-aged–suddenly had no daytime childcare when schools closed as COVID-19 first spread in Wisconsin. A single mom, her hands were tied.

She’s now recently back at work after moving to Chicago, with her children’s new schools reopening in late spring. But the state Department of Workforce Development is threatening a warrant if she doesn’t repay $29,706 they paid out to her in regular and extra federal unemployment benefits during the pandemic, because of a minor error in one of her weekly claims in April 2020.

“With all that being shut down, I had no way to work,” she said.

She’s the only caretaker for her children. People who had to quit their jobs to provide childcare during the pandemic was one way to qualify for pandemic unemployment assistance, the federal program begun to pay unemployment for those who wouldn’t normally qualify for regular benefits. She was on PUA for awhile, she said. But the bulk of unemployment, and the benefits the DWD is after her to repay, are from regular unemployment and the enhanced federal benefit.

“If I was never supposed to get the regular UI…it should have been corrected,” Dominique said. “You all work there; I don’t work there.”

Real or alleged filing mistakes threaten financial disaster for applicants

The issue at stake is that the DWD says Dominique worked at a job in April 2020 for less than a week that she didn’t report to the DWD–something that they didn’t work out until months after paying her the regular unemployment benefits. Dominique said she was working multiple jobs when the pandemic shut everything down.

Employment attorney Victor Forberger said most applicants don’t understand that each job has to be adjudicated for an unemployment claim–something that most states waived at the beginning of the pandemic, but not Wisconsin.

“It’s created a nightmare situation, especially with those on the lower economic spectrum who have multiple jobs,” Forberger explained.

The state claims she didn’t respond to phone calls asking her to correct the April error, but Dominique contends she called back after every voicemail–and either couldn’t get through, or continually got conflicting information from adjudicators and other respondents.

“I used to call DWD every day to speak with somebody, and I get something told to me different every day.”

The state is blaming her for not providing complete information during the claims filing process as well as not returning phone calls seeking more details about her claim. Aldridge says she didn’t even submit all the claims herself (the state says records show she did the initial claim herself, but didn’t respond to questions about claims after they went to adjudication), and returned every phone call from adjudicators. She could rarely get through, or when she did was told they had the information they needed–or a combination of other contradicting pieces of information.

Dominique applied for regular unemployment, then she said she was switched later to the Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation program. After that, she was put on the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program. Then, she was switched back.

“I don’t know how that stuff goes,” she said.

It was confusing,  and she says ultimately, it’s not her fault. The state is threatening her with a warrant and credit score damage if she doesn’t pay out. She’s appealing the decision–and now she’s stuck in a waiting pattern for a hearing process that’s likely to stretch for months or longer.

“I don’t work there, I’m not the one that put in the case,” she said. “An actual representative there did the application for me.”

She’s now back in school to get her nursing degree while working part-time as a CNA and caring for her children. As far as the state is concerned, the nearly-$30,000 bill is on her.

‘It’s worse now than during the pandemic’

Claims denied during the pandemic, or filed with mistakes, have led to a backlog of appeals and hearings leaving thousands stuck in limbo even as the state gets back to work.

Employment attorney Victor Forberger, who deals frequently with clients struggling with unemployment and runs a website discussing Wisconsin’s unemployment system, says an over-complicated appeals process has left stacked-up claims that rarely result in good news for claimants.

“It’s worse now than during the pandemic,” Forberger said. Currently, there’s more than 12,000 cases waiting to have hearings scheduled. “Most of these decisions are going against claimants.”

In 2020, the DWD reported $66.4 million dollars overpaid in unemployment benefits to nearly 80,000 applicants–most of which they deemed to be non-fraudulent. Currently, the DWD told News 3 that about 57,000 people have overpayment unemployment benefit balances, although some of those extend to pre-pandemic. Most are from mistakes or errors on the claimant’s side, the DWD says, like not correctly reporting wages.

“UI programs are complex, and were made even more complex by the multiple federal programs that were layered on to existing state UI programs at the onset of the pandemic,” a DWD spokesperson said in an email.

Forberger argues the entire system, which he says now uses well over 100 questions to determine eligibility compared to fewer than 10 in the late 2000s, is designed in a way that confuses participants.

“Magic words have to be used, and if you fail to use the magic words, you lose,” Forberger said. “The technical term for this is called administrative sludge…you create hoops and obstacles for them to jump through and climb over. And so they can’t successfully get those benefits, except for an elite few who become experts in the system.”

The federal government told states earlier in 2021 that they could waive unemployment overpayments that weren’t the claimant’s fault. But the state contends most of the errors are the individual’s responsibility, where the waiver system wouldn’t apply. For them, if they lose their appeals, the option left is a payment plan.

“I wasn’t out there trying to do nothing fraudulent,” Dominique said. “I literally had to stop my job and take care of my kids. I had nobody but me.”

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