She said she feels completely helpless, and when asked by the I-Team the state shifted the blame to the federal government.
"There's no way I can pay that back," Kimberly Cassaro said.
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Cassaro was in disbelief when she received the letter from the Illinois Department of Employment Security stating her Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, or PUA, benefits were overpaid and she now owes more than $20,000.
"I thought it was a joke at first," she said. "I really to focus in on that number to make sure I was seeing what I thought I was seeing and I've been full of anxiety ever since."
Cassaro said she has blood cancer, and on the advice of her doctor stopped working because she is at greater risk of serious complications from COVID-19.
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She said she applied for the state's PUA program and provided her supporting documents. Eventually, she was approved.
"I am very angry. I'm scared. I have no idea how I'm going to pay that money back," said Cassaro. "The state says I have to pay back $15,842."
Sally Durkin of Chicago Ridge said she received a similar letter from the state, and is also furious.
"They sent us the money in good faith saying this is what you're entitled to, and now they're saying you're not," she said.
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IDES said the issue goes far beyond the state, saying in part, "Overpayments within the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) system is an unfortunate consequence of a federal system haphazardly put together without much foresight concerning how it would negatively impact PUA claimants."
Federal guidance allows PUA claimants to establish their own weekly benefit amount. Those benefits are submitted before the state verifies them. If someone was overpaid, federal guidance does not allow states to waive recoupment of overpayments.
That means people like Cassaro and Durkin are left with no other option but to pay back the state.
They both plan to appeal the overpayment and feel either the state or the federal government must do something to stop this.
"The letters say due January 5th. There's no way I have that money to send back to them," Cassaro said. "They can't squeeze blood out of a turnip. If they need me to pay that back, it will be $10 a month, and if they need to sue me that's what they need to do."
IDES said unless there is a change in federal guidance by the U.S. Department of Labor, or a new stimulus package, they are required to recoup those overpayments.
The state said they are willing to work with people impacted to determine repayment options.
Full Statement from IDES
Overpayments within the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) system is an unfortunate consequence of a federal system haphazardly put together without much foresight concerning how it would negatively impact PUA claimants (self-employed, sole proprietors, 1099 workers, etc.). The federal guidance given to every state for PUA systems allows a PUA claimant to establish their own weekly benefit amount prior to verification by state unemployment systems. Additionally, the same federal guidance does not allow states to waive the recoupment of PUA overpayments, which has resulted in claimants, under federal requirements, being required to pay back funds otherwise needed for their families, rent, mortgages, and groceries. This is especially concerning for claimants and state unemployment agencies given the impending expiration of PUA on December 26, 2020, barring additional federal action from the federal government.
Unless there is a change to the federal guidance provided by USDOL, or unless there is federal action taken with a new or expanded federal stimulus package, Illinois, and every other state in the Union, is required to recoup overpayments made within the PUA system. While IDES understands the additional financial burden this places on claimants and their families, the Department is prepared to work with claimants impacted to best approach repayment options and plans.