Flint, Michigan (WNEM ) — In the past year some residents have gone months without benefits because the system had been overwhelmed by the flood of applications by the newly unemployed. Some who did get their benefits are being told by the state to pay them back.
“Something is wrong, you know, something is wrong,” said Don Syed, unemployment recipient.
Syed worked for more than 40 years and said he never used a sick day and is proud of his work as a salesperson.
“You work, you are doing all the right things, then all of a sudden you’re 60-years-old and they say you are a liar,” Syed said.
In February of last year, he lost his job because his employer shut their doors for good. For the first time in his life, he started to collect unemployment benefits. Fast forward a year later, and the state is telling him to pay it all back.
“I didn’t voluntarily quit anything. I got laid off and if you look at page one, it’s right there. It says laid off Fred Meyer Jewelers,” Syed said.
Syed is from Saginaw and worked at Fashion Square Mall. He said during the pandemic, it was difficult to find a new job in retail and his unemployment just kept getting extended.
“I told my wife, ‘I guess they are giving me more weeks.’ You know, she goes, ‘well, you’ve worked 42 years. You deserve it.’ And I’m like, ‘yeah,’” Syed said.
Syed was stunned when he got a letter on Dec. 23. In the letter, the Unemployment Insurance Agency – or UIA – told him he needs to pay back $24,734 dollars with interest.
That’s when Syed got to work. He sent in paperwork, multiple times, to the UIA trying to prove his case.
“I tried to call the governor’s office. I tried to call the UIA but couldn’t get through – even with the link. Try to do an appointment, nobody will talk to you. There’s no way you can get through,” Syed said.
Syed isn’t alone.
“I logged in and it said that I owe restitution,” said Kaitlyn Wisenbaugh, unemployment recipient.
The Davison woman was laid off during the pandemic from her job in dental billing. She said she got a notice saying she owed hundreds of dollars back to the state.
“The lady assured me that there wasn’t anything that I owed, I just had to go online and file a protest, but there was nothing there for me to protest,” Wisenbaugh said.
Wisenbaugh said she can’t seem to dispute her claim either.
“It’s just frustrating knowing that I haven’t done anything wrong, I have not misrepresented myself. I’m collecting unemployment because I’m unemployed. I don’t think I should be owing the state any money,” Wisenbaugh said.
TV5 has tried to reach the UIA since the beginning of February, but no one has been available.
This is an issue that has also captured the attention of Congressman Dan Kildee.
“I think part of the problem has been just the overwhelming amount of cases,” Kildee said.
Kildee said lawmakers have been working on funding to help the state’s overwhelmed UIA system and some of the technology issues. He said unemployment claims need to go down, but that won’t happen until COVID-19 is under control. He said more than 3000 people have called his office for help.
“Don’t just sit back, call and ask for help, file an appeal. Make sure if they think that they are due for unemployment, the greatest likelihood is that they are,” Kildee said.
Syed said he has made an appeal, and tried to reach the UIA, but the paperwork still shows he owes it all back.
“It’s very stressful. It’s very stressful cause you’re thinking about it all the time and you know every night I’m thinking. I know I did everything right,” Syed said.
On Feb. 15, Syed was able to finally get the restitution taken off his account. He is also going to start getting backpay. He had been reaching out to the UIA since December. Nearly two months later, he was told it was some kind of misunderstanding with the UIA and his last day of work.
As for Wisenbaugh, she still owes money.
TV5 will stay on top of this story. If you have been told you owe the UIA money, we’d like to hear from you. Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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