LANSING, Mich. — Bonnie VanSledright is one of thousands of Michiganders told by Michigan's Unemployment Insurance Agency to pay back the money that kept them afloat during the pandemic.
The agency sent that letter to hundreds of thousands of people, after they made mistakes and according to an audit, overpaid billions in federal unemployment money. Not all went to fraudsters, many were people like Bonnie who were trying to do the right thing.
On top of that the agency has huge backlog of claims to address, leaving people waiting months for answers.
“It feels good to get the story out there so people know they are alone. And know that you know people are trying to do something about it,” VanSledright told FOX 17 last week.
After our story aired, Bonnie’s case was made right by the agency, she won’t have to pay back that $25,000.
She’s now one of the lucky ones, but there are thousands still driving around wondering what’s going to happen with their unresolved issues.
“I had my job since 2008, I was there for a long time. I lost in April of 2020 when the pandemic hit,” explained Dave Zampa of Holland.
Zampa began collecting unemployment shortly after and in 2021 he also received a letter saying he had to pay it back.
The UIA alleges he didn’t qualify for assistance because he didn’t work prior to the pandemic or in the first quarter of 2021, which Zampa says is untrue.
“I sent them my complete tax returns, as well as both 1099 showing that I did work and they sent me a letter saying that based on the information you sent us that you do qualify for [Pandemic Unemployment Assitance].
But then around Thanksgiving he found another letter in his online account, one he says he never received in the mail.
“This was a final review to determine if you qualify for PUA and submit documents,” Zampa says the letter read. “And I did not make it within that 48 hour window, because I did not know of the letter at the time,” he added.
His account still says he owes the money and after protesting he still hasn’t received any answers from the agency. “I've been losing sleep and everything, anxiety, the whole nine yards. So it's been extremely stressful.”
Last week, state House lawmakers overwhelmingly passed a series of bills relating to the UIIA, including measures that would grant waivers to people who improperly received benefits by-way of an agency error and require the agency to review claims within 15 days of them being submitted.
“I heard from so many local families who were put in an impossible situation during the pandemic,” Rep. Julie Calley (R-Portland) said in a statement. “Hard-working people were forced out of their jobs by the governor’s orders, then were left struggling to put food on the table while the unemployment agency delayed their rightful support. This went on for months, and eventually the agency demanded the funds back from many of the same families. We need more accountability to force the unemployment agency to do a better job to promptly and accurately serve Michiganders," Calley added.
The House also voted to put $250 million into the state unemployment trust fund to ensure local small businesses don’t pay more in taxes to make up for the money the UIA lost to fraud.
Those bills now head to the state Senate, but for many a fix can't come soon enough.
“I just would love to get this whole thing resolved as soon as possible so I can get on with my life,” Zampa added.
The UIA has a website explaining their error that caused the overpayment problem and how folks can go about protesting a decision.
When asked about the ongoing issues, Michigan UIA’s Communications Manager Nick Assendelft said, “UIA staff is working diligently to help claimants with their cases. Understand that each case is unique and can be complicated to adjudicate. Since March 2020, we’ve experienced an unprecedented number of claims and our staff continues to work through our backlog. We have paid out more than $39 billion to more than 3.3 million claimants since that time.”