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The www.FedPrimeRate.com Personal Finance Blog and Magazine

Thursday, January 07, 2010

Paying for Someone Else's Mistakes

I was a log home designer for over five years when the housing market imploded and the credit lines dried up. Once that happened, my job, along with countless others, was cut. I was fortunate enough to qualify for state unemployment compensation (UC) benefits, having worked and earned many times over the minimum requirements. The initial application process was easy enough; I answer employment history and salary questions, and they go back to my former employer to confirm it. All it took was a few days of waiting, and I was sent my Notice of Financial Determination, congratulating me on qualifying for benefits.

My job search started immediately, but with the housing market in a state of disrepair, no one in my area was looking for drafters. Countless resumes and cover letters went out, but next to nothing came back. When it did, I was told either that I was overqualified for the position or that they had decided to restructure from within. The months ticked by and having no firm offers, I became very concerned that I would be left without any form of income to help support my family. A few weeks before my benefits ran out, the President signed into law a bill extending UC benefits for millions of people like me who were in jeopardy of losing them. I was ecstatic, thankful for the lifeline that would help keep my family afloat.

While filing for EUC, I received a notice in the mail from the state saying that my benefit year would be ending, and that I would need to file a new application to continue receiving benefits. I went through the same application process, and within a few days got a letter in the mail with my Notice of Financial Determination. Everything seemed in order; it gave my weekly benefit rate and length of time I qualified for, but it also had some new information. It said that my qualification of benefits hinged on additional information.

I placed another call to the state asking what additional information they needed, and without asking any questions simply told me that I did not qualify for any more state UC benefits and would be kicked back to the EUC program. Once the EUC funds ran out on my claim, there was nothing else that I could do because I no longer had enough credit hours worked to support the claim. I was devastated, having just been told by the state that I qualified for six more months of benefits only to have them take it back.

So I filed my bi-weekly claim the Sunday after that depressing conversation, watching my funds deplete, wondering if I would ever find a job. I checked my bank statement that week, and to my surprise I found two deposits made. One was the EUC deposit, the one that I was expecting. The next was the regular UC from the state; you know the one I didn’t qualify for a few days before...

By this time I had the UC service center on speed dial, and immediately called them up to ask what in the world was going on. The person that I talked to said that I re-qualified for the state UC benefits and never should have been told otherwise. They also stated that I should have been taken off of the EUC program list to avoid overpayment. They proceeded to tell me that with people being laid off and filing for unemployment in record numbers that they had to add extra staff to support all the claims being filed. They told me that the UC service center employees basically train for a week, and after that they are on their own. A week is plenty of time to learn all the ins and outs of the entire UC system, you know.

The lack of knowledge of the people that I was interacting with at the UC service center coupled with a computer glitch that allowed both of the payments to be processed made for a huge mess that could have easily been avoided. I asked what exactly the overpayment meant for me, and all they would tell me was that sometime in the future they would expect it to be paid back. I told them I thought that was fair. After all, it was a mistake and the money did not really belong to me. I asked to make sure that they had taken me out of the EUC program to avoid this happening again, and they assured me it had been taken care of.

Fast forward two weeks when I filed my next bi-weekly claim and the same thing happened. I checked my bank statement to see if they had corrected the error, and alas, they did not. So now I had two more weeks of overpayment to worry about. Another call was placed to the center, but this time I was not as happy. I told them the whole story, about how I was in the wrong system and was overpaid the last time I filed. I explained that I was told that the problem was taken care of and that the overpayment would not happen again. But it did… The only reply I received was that they were terribly sorry, but the money would still need to be repaid.

I thought about that for a moment, and asked why I should have to pay back someone else’s mistake. The first time it happened I had no problem with it. It was an oversight/computer glitch and I was told it was taken care of. The second time, however, was not my fault. If the people that they have on the phones handling the claims knew what they were talking about I would not be in this mess. It was frustrating to basically hear “I’m sorry but too bad… It will still need to be repaid…” They told me that it would be several months before they got the information sorted out, and not to worry about it until then. So I didn’t.

About four months after all of this went down, I was finally sent an informational letter stating that the repayment of benefits would begin with the next time I filed. There was also something about an appeal form, but that was not sent with the packet of papers I received. I called the center again, but they told me that my time to appeal the repayment had passed and there was no way to get out of it. I explained to them that it was their oversight that caused the headaches, but they would not hear it. All in all, I was overpaid a total of seven weeks, which totaled about $2500. So in the end, my checks were cut in half to repay the amount that never should have been as high as it was. The balance has finally been repaid and life goes on, but what a headache it was getting here.

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Wednesday, September 10, 2008

The Value of a Teacher? Not Enough to Collect Unemployment Benefits

unemployment2007 was a rough year for me. I was living off student loans, trying desperately to finish my degree in time to look for a teaching job at the start of the school year. I managed to find a job within a month of graduating, which was a lucky break, only to find out my school district would be paying me monthly, on the last day of the following month. My only consolation was that I managed to avoid the scourge of post-graduation unemployment, but before the school year was over, I was back on a collision course with the Florida unemployment system, thanks in part to the voters of my state.

In November of last year, the principal of my high school announced that his nightmares had come true, that Florida voters had passed a ballot initiative that increased the Homestead Exemption. I'd been teaching for only a few months, but I'd been made to understand by the other teachers that whenever the voters passed anything that would cut their taxes by a few hundred dollars, it cut the state budget by that same hundred dollars multiplied by millions of Florida tax-payers. That meant budget shortfalls for the every department of state government, including the Polk County School Board, which employed me as an English teacher. Within a few months, the principal told me what I'd already come to suspect. A first year teacher hired a month into the school year was at the bottom of the seniority totem pole, and I was one of the unlucky teachers whose units had been excised to cover the budget shortfall.

When the school year ended, I cleaned out my classroom, a portable trailer that was going to be condemned because of bad wiring only days after I left it, and I started looking for work. After a month or two without leads, I turned to the unemployment system.

I'd been dreading applying for unemployment benefits for a while because I figured it would be a long, horrifying process under hot lights, in the back room of some government office with Soviet-style bread lines out front. As it turned out, I didn't even need to wear pants to apply for benefits. In Florida, you can enter all your information into a government website and apply online. You can even enter your banking information and have the unemployment checks deposited directly into your account. I took note of when I was supposed to come back to the site and claim my weeks, entered my direct deposit information, and felt generally embarrassed that I'd worried about filing for unemployment in the first place.

You can't collect anything for at least two weeks, and there's a one week waiting period after that. This probably varies by state, but most people agree that you won't see any actual money for a month after applying.

While I was waiting, the state mailed me the first of several helpful updates about my unemployment claim, a sheet reminding me to claim my weeks on the appointed day, 8/19/08, through either www.fluidnow.com or by calling the toll-free number. It also explained in bold print that failing to claim my weeks would delay my benefits.

The next piece of correspondence I received was something labeled, “Wage Transcript and Determination,” which I correctly deduced had to do with how much I would be receiving from unemployment. At the bottom of the sheet, it listed my wage credits, and somewhere in the middle of a very misleading chart, it showed my eligibility, which they had rather curiously noted by putting an X under a box that said, “Insufficient Wage Credits.” That was the only hint that I would be receiving no benefits, as I received another letter a few days later which again reminded me to claim my weeks. The Wage Determination report itself was generic and poorly laid out, with its Ineligible and Eligible boxes side by side in such a way that I couldn't tell at first glance which one applied to me.

When I claimed my weeks on the appointed day and received nothing that week or the week that followed, I went back to that form and started to wonder if I'd misread it, which I clearly had. Maybe I'd seen the X under “Insufficient Wage Credits” and my subconscious had dismissed it as a mistake. I mean, it was ridiculous to think that my sister, who'd spent a few months working for an ice cream shop in Daytona, could collect unemployment benefits but teaching high school for a year wasn't worth sufficient wage credits.

Granted, her former employer had challenged her claim on the grounds that she'd been fired. My sister further clarified that she'd been fired because she left work to fly to New Jersey for our aunt's funeral and the manager had refused to give her the time off. She was awarded the benefits.

I called the number furnished by the Agency for Workforce Innovation, who was apparently responsible for administrating the unemployment program, but kept getting busy signals. I checked the documentation provided on the state's website to see if I could find out exactly why I didn't qualify for benefits.

From the Agency for Workforce Innovation:

Some of the reasons a person may be denied benefits are as follows:

  • Quitting either part-time or full-time work for personal reasons. Benefit payments can only be paid if you quit for good cause attributable to your employer, or for a personal illness or disability that made it necessary for you to leave the job.

  • Being discharged for misconduct connected with work. Misconduct is an intentional or controllable act or failure to take action, which shows a deliberate disregard of the employer’s interests. Misconduct may include breaking a known company policy.

  • Not being able to work or available for work. You must be able, ready and willing to accept a suitable job immediately. You must also be able to get to work and have adequate child care in order to be able to work.

  • Refusing an offer of suitable work.

  • Being on a leave of absence you requested.

  • Knowingly making false statements to obtain benefit payments.

I wasn't fired, and I'd worked almost a full school year earning around $15/hour. The unemployment system was being run by the state. I'd been employed by the state. Everything I said about my employment history was easily verified, right down to the budget cut that put me out of work.

• If your claim is not payable, the determination will explain the reason for denial and your appeal rights.

“Explain” here having the rather liberal definition of, “A box will be checked somewhere on a nondescript form, which you will then be left to interpret.” If this was because I hadn't accumulated enough wage credits, it would have been nice to know exactly how many I needed and how I was supposed to go about getting them. I turned to that bastion of knowledge, the Frequently Asked Questions link:

To qualify monetarily, a person must:

Have been paid wages in two or more calendar quarters in the base period;
Have total base period wages of at least 1-1/2 times the wages in the quarter having the highest earnings; Have at least $3,400 total wages in the base period.

Looking at my Determination, I had clearly earned more than $3,400 in the base period. It also showed that I had earned wages in two of the four listed quarters, though something was definitely off there. The four quarters were listed on my chart as 2/07, 3/07, 4/07, and 1/08, which seemed to suggest several quarters were only thirty days long and the last of them lasted from April all the way to the end of the year. I was an English teacher, but even I know how to divide a year into quarters.

The middle requirement, in which I needed to earn 1-1/2 times the wages of my highest quarter might be what they were counting against me, but based on how they were measuring their quarters, I couldn't be sure. In fact, what they listed for my earnings in the last quarter was only a fraction of what I actually earned, almost as though they'd carved off an entire portion of my 2008 earnings when they divvied the year into one-month or eight-month slices. It's very hard to make 1-1/2 times the total when one quarter doesn't even reflect half of what you actually earned.

I tried getting to the bottom of this again today, first checking the website for any information on my claim, and then calling the toll-free number. The website wasn't helpful, but it did tell me that there was an ongoing problem with the Internet Claims System and that I should call the Agency directly at the listed number. As before, the line was busy, but after an hour or so I managed to get through. An automated voice warned me that the call volume was higher than normal and that it might be an hour before someone could speak to me. It helpfully suggested using the Internet Claims System, then asked me to choose from a list of options. I chose the one that would connect me with an agent, fully prepared to wait however long it took to get some answers.

The automated voice warned again that the Agency was experiencing higher than normal call volume, then said, “There are no representatives available. Please call back later if you would like to speak to a representative.” The automated voice repeated this strange pronouncement a second, and then a third time, “There are no representatives available,” and then it terminated my call.

Apparently, the budget shortfall hit some departments harder than others.

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Friday, August 29, 2008

Applying For Unemployment Benefits Can Blow Up In Your Face

Sometimes you just don’t finish on top. The last time I worked a job was quite a few years ago, and unfortunately, I was fired. I was chronically late, and at a call center, that’s very bad. Very bad. That last time that I was late, I had a great excuse for not making it on time, but there was no room for negotiation. I had acquired too many demerits in too short a period of time, so I was let go.

The next step for me was applying for unemployment benefits. I had always been warned that getting fired from a job could disqualify one from receiving them, but my mom advised me to apply anyway. “The worst thing that could happen is that you get denied, right?”, she asked. I agreed with her sentiment and went for it. They approved me, and I was relieved. I would be getting married in less than six months, so I couldn’t afford to go from a full-time income to no income at all. I figured that since I would be moving to a new city once I got married, never to work again, I could simply receive the unemployment benefits until they ran out, and life would go on.

And that’s exactly what happened.

That is, until I received a letter from the state at my new address 150 miles away letting me know that my unemployment benefits were being disputed. I couldn’t believe it; I didn’t even know that such a thing existed. I received unemployment checks for months - why would the company dispute my eligibility after they had already paid the money? I was so young at the time that I didn’t even realize that it was my former employer footing the bill to begin with, so the entire ordeal was a whirlwind of confusion and questions. It also hurt my feelings because my former manager and boss personally signed off on the dispute. It truly was business, and nothing personal, but it sure felt personal. I couldn’t understand the fairness in being approved for unemployment benefits by the state and then being denied after the fact. If I was receiving unemployment benefits, the assumption would logically be that I do not have enough money to pay them back, or else I wouldn’t have needed them to begin with! I felt like I was being robbed at gunpoint.

And that’s almost what happened.

There was a hearing, and it did not go well. My former employer had a lawyer present - I was totally blindsided. I didn’t even know I needed legal representation, considering that the hearing was not before a judge. They ran me through the mud, my former manager speaking about me as if we never had any camaraderie at all. I was ordered to pay back every dime of a benefit that I was told legally belonged to me. However, just spending all that we had on our wedding and post-nuptial activities, we didn’t have the few thousands dollars that my former employer demanded. And so our joint state tax returns were garnished for a few years.

I later found out that I was not the only person I knew who had experienced this. Another young friend of mine found himself behind the barrel of the same gun, except General Motors was conducting the stickup that time. Who knew that just like buckshot spraying from a barrel, applying for unemployment benefits could blow up in your face?

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