ALLENDALE, Mich. — A West Michigan mother is dealing with a lot of stress when it comes to unemployment.
Not only did she lose the family business and her premature twins but now she’s being told she owes more than $11,000 back to the state.
“It was definitely a very scary time,” said Alaina Pepper.
The past year’s been rough for her and her family.
She and her husband opened their new gym in March of 2020. That same week she ended up in the hospital pregnant with twins.
Zoe Joy and Jeremiah James (born at 23 weeks) did not survive.
“She was just too little; they just couldn’t do anything,” said Pepper. “And then two days later the COVID lockdown started, and so my older girls never got a chance to see them because of the lockdowns—and then he had brain bleeds and we lost him too.”
Two weeks later she had a kidney infection not far from septic shock. She ended up back in the hospital right next to the NICU where she just lost her babies.
“So, it was… I can’t even describe the trauma that causes to a person—it’s absolutely horrible,” she said.
Despite the health setbacks, the couple was ready to start their business. They had the license and already leased the space for the gym.
Rock Force Fit Club was stocked and ready to go at a strip mall on Remembrance Road in Walker.
“Beginning of March, everything was great,” she said. “We had no idea, bought all this equipment, got it all going, and then all summer it was like, ‘Okay, this keeps going. When are we going to be able to reopen?'”
When COVID hit, the governor shut everything down. That quickly put their passion on hold.
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FILING FOR BENEFITS
That’s when Alaina first filed for unemployment. She collected until the fall when Governor Whitmer loosened restrictions for gyms.
“I think it was after Labor Day maybe, so we did open then and started to get new people in right away, and we’re rolling and feeling good and then the second shutdown happened—and that’s what did it,” she said.
The family dream was coming to an end. They could no longer afford the space and now it’s empty.
All the equipment is now sitting in their garage at home, as yet another reminder of what COVID stole from them.
“We just wanted to wait it out, and we were trying so hard to just wait it out, and we finally just said, ‘We have nothing left. We have nothing. We have to walk away.’”
Alaina collected unemployment for several months during the shutdowns, and then in December the bills started showing up in the mail.
“It was like immediate panic, you know, we have a new baby, we have a two-year-old, I have two older girls, we’re trying to run a gym that is like shut down again, just complete stomach drop panic,” she said.
She had no idea about the alleged overpayments. Alaina tells FOX 17 she wasn’t even logging onto the site to look at her account.
She’s now being told she owes $11,300. Despite missing the deadline to respond to the agency, she did so anyway.
“Didn’t hear back, just got another bill, didn’t hear back, responded again, didn’t hear back," Pepper said. "Are they holding my tax returns because of this? I don’t know.”
“Unemployment is telling me I have to pay unemployment back, but also sent me a tax bill for the unemployment they want me to pay back,” she said. “So, we paid the taxes on the unemployment, still getting bills, haven’t gotten the amount back that we’re allowed for our $10,000, so we have so much money that is—that the government is just holding and we don’t know what to do.”
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Alaina says the shutdowns affected the entire family.
Her husband, who served eight years in the military, lost his concrete job last year. He was out for about seven weeks and collected unemployment just fine.
Her daughters, who had to go back and forth with virtual learning, are struggling.
The entire process has been a huge headache for everyone who’s trying to get back to normal.
“We need our money back from tax returns and our unemployment, and I don’t know what’s happening with this bill, and it’s just been an emotional roller coaster and we can’t do it anymore,” she said.
Alaina tells me she’s working on getting licensed to open a day care at home.
They still like fitness, so they’re debating what’s next for that too.
After I reached out to the UIA, the agency says it’s now looking into her case.
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