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On the morning of Sept. 9, Angeline Stevens dialed in to what amounts to a court hearing for people fighting the state of Texas’ decisions about their unemployment benefits, prepared to represent herself.
But even as the conference call began, Stevens didn’t know how to argue her position because she didn’t know why the Texas Workforce Commission was demanding she repay $5,022 in unemployment aid she thought she was entitled to receive.
Stevens filed for unemployment after she lost her summer job teaching a welding class at Mountain View College in Dallas due to the coronavirus pandemic. But after receiving unemployment assistance for 10 weeks, the TWC sent a notice that her payments had stopped in early August.
“You have been overpaid unemployment benefits,” read the notice from the state agency in charge of the payments. “We cannot pay you benefits until you repay this overpayment.”
Stevens had already spent that money keeping up with bills, like many of the other 3.6 million Texans who have received unemployment relief during the pandemic. She didn’t have the kind of money the agency was demanding. Nor did Stevens understand why she was ordered to repay the state any money at all.
So she signed into her online TWC account, as the letter directed, to appeal the agency’s allegation that she had been overpaid.
“It gives you a box, and it gives you 400 characters: ‘We found you guilty, tell us why you’re not guilty,’” Stevens said. “I told my husband: ‘I don’t even know what I’m defending myself against.’”
A spokesman for the commission said the agency can’t comment on specific Texans’ unemployment claims or their use of the court-like system called an appeals tribunal.
After millions of Texans who lost work during the pandemic’s parallel economic crisis inundated the workforce commission — and the federal government sent states billions of dollars to keep out-of-work people afloat — the agency was overwhelmed with confused Texans calling in hopes of sorting out their unemployment issues.
But many of the messages and videos the agency has posted on social media, however, have been focused on warning people against filing fraudulent claims — and even asked Texans to turn in others they knew weren’t entitled to benefits they were receiving.
“To date, Texas has paid out over $21 billion in unemployment insurance claims, and we know that nefarious actors are targeting that money,” TWC Executive Director Ed Serna said in an August news release.
From March 1 through Oct. 1, the workforce commission said it overpaid a total of $214 million and sent out about 260,000 notices to people in hopes of recouping that money. But some Texans who have experienced those attempts described a complicated and seemingly rogue enforcement arm of the state that Stevens said “sets you up to fail.”
“You can’t win because you can’t fill out the paperwork correctly,” Stevens said. “Even if you did, they’ll find some technicality to take you to this weird court that happens over the phone.”
Struggling to mount a defense
When Texans are interested in appealing the agency’s decisions through this administrative court, they typically have a 14-day window to submit their appeal. It is submitted online, through faxing or by delivery, and allows appellants to make a written argument.
Upon receiving the appeal, the agency acknowledges it and sends a notice of the telephone hearing that lists the hearing officer in the case by first initial and last name.
So there Stevens was last month, on a phone call with the hearing officer at the appeals tribunal hearing. She knew nothing about the woman presiding over the case other than what was listed on the documents sent to her by the workforce commission.
The workforce commission said hearing officers are essentially administrative judges. But the agency would also not disclose anything beyond the first initial and last name of the hearing officer on Stevens’ case to The Texas Tribune, saying the “TWC does not publicly comment on personnel records of individual employees.”
Stevens said it sounded like the officer was reading off a script for the first 20 minutes of the hearing when she asked if Stevens had an attorney present.
“How was I supposed to hire an attorney?” Stevens recalled. “I didn’t have a job.”
Ahead of her initial hearing, Stevens was not told what she had done wrong. She was also unable to view her original unemployment filing and the workforce commission did not provide it to her, she said.
“You only have two weeks from the time that hits your inbox to file an appeal,” Stevens said. “But you can't get any more information to file the appeal. And I can’t get ahold of anybody for my submission, can’t get ahold of anyone on the phone. How am I supposed to defend myself?”
Stevens’ husband, Jason Flowers, who also lost his work freelancing as a photographer, faced similar issues with the workforce commission when the agency said it overpaid him, too. Flowers was ordered to pay more than $1,100 back to the agency. Unlike Stevens, he did not fight back.
“He just wrote a check,” Stevens said. “He said: ‘What you’re going through is not worth it.’”
Their neighbor, Jeff Jackson, was furloughed in March from his audiovisuals job in the events industry when large in-person gatherings came to a screeching halt at the beginning of the pandemic. He didn’t know when his job would bring him back on. But he needed money coming in to keep up with his bills — and within days he found a job driving trucks.
It didn’t last.
For one reason, his family didn’t think it was a good idea to be out as the virus was tightening its grip on Texas. For another, he was given keys to an 18-wheeler almost immediately and felt like the company wasn’t taking safety precautions. He quit after the first day.
“I said to myself, ‘This is not a good fit, they're cutting corners,’” he said. “If they’re cutting corners on this, what else are they cutting corners on?’”
So, for the first time in his life, Jackson applied for unemployment benefits based on the money he made at the audiovisuals job that furloughed him. Unlike many Texans, he had no issues with the online system and swiftly began receiving jobless payments. In late April, the workforce commission sent a notice of “potential overpayment.”
Jackson thought he qualified because he was furloughed from the events-related job that clearly wasn’t going to return soon. And the 18-wheeler gig didn’t even count in his mind, because it was a quickly abandoned attempt to make ends meet without government aid.
That first notice did not require a reply and Jackson said he continued receiving benefits. The next notice came on June 16 — and said he would no longer receive payments. The workforce commission also ordered him to repay $5,210 in benefits it determined he should not have received.
“Our investigation found you quit your last work to take a job with another employer,” the workforce commission notice said. “While your reason for quitting may have been for a good personal reason, it is not considered good cause connected with the work.”
Jackson was confused.
The 42-year-old, who lives with his wife, two daughters and his mother-in-law in Garland, said he tried calling the workforce commission but the lines were busy. When he emailed, all he received was an automatic reply that didn’t answer any of his questions.
Once Jackson reached an agency representative on the phone, they said he did not qualify for unemployment relief because he had found another job after being furloughed and then voluntarily quit — even though it was after one day.
“Eventually, I got a hold of somebody and they told me: ‘This is what happened, this is your outcome, you can appeal if you want to,’” Jackson said. “The way they were talking on the phone was like: ‘Good luck.’”
Based on the staffers’ tone, Jackson figured he’d end up losing the appeal and decided not to get into an extended fight with the agency.
Seven months since his work stopped, the in-person events industry is still suffering and Jackson has now found a job driving a truck for another company. But he’s also struggling to pay back the money the workforce commission asked for.
“This is the first time I've been on unemployment, ever,” Jackson said. “I just don’t want to pay it back. I can take the last few months not working and not getting checks. But having to pay that debt, that's kind of a hit.”
So far, Jackson has made two payments, each worth $210. But even those payments had not shown up on his workforce commission account, and he didn’t know why, even though he’s tried to call and find out.
“I got a ‘due to the volume we are unable to answer your call,’” he said.
Last week, Jackson finally received confirmation that his payments had been posted. Now, he owes the workforce commission $4,790, and paying is not simple.
“Currently TWC does not accept credit card or telephone payments,” Jackson’s notification from the agency read. “You can repay your overpayment by mailing a check or money order payable to TWC to the following address. Write the last 4 digits of your SSN or account number on each payment.”
Living in limbo
When Stevens showed up to her telephone court hearing in September and two employees from the human resources department with the University of Michigan, where she also teaches, were also on the call, she thought there must have been a mistake. Stevens, who declined to use her first name citing safety concerns, said she was only filing for unemployment relief for her summer job loss at Mountain View.
At the hearing, Stevens sought to defend appropriately filing for assistance due to losing her welding class job for the summer. The hearing officer, however, started the hearing by reading rules and asking a series of scripted questions of her and the University of Michigan representatives over the course of at least 20 minutes, Stevens said, before eventually asking if anyone had questions.
“Uh, yeah I have questions,” Stevens recalled. “I put my best foot forward to fill out this paperwork. This is not a case of fraud, this might be a case of not filing the paperwork out properly. I'm not trying to scam you all.”
Still, Stevens was not clear on what the allegations were. The judge was interested in discussing the University of Michigan’s involvement, but Stevens’ job loss concerned the college in Dallas.
“I needed to collect (unemployment benefits) as long as I wasn’t teaching,” Stevens said. “Back in the spring we had no clue when we were going to go back.”
She said she noted all of her jobs on her account filings, such as her adjunct professor job at the University of Michigan at Flint, where she has taught art history online for two decades. But the teaching gigs only pay when she teaches, which Stevens said she noted on her filings. Stevens still isn’t sure what she did wrong. She believes she may have filled in her University of Michigan job in the wrong place on her filing, but still doesn’t have access to her original documents.
“I have nothing to hide,” Stevens said. “But the state of Texas thinks I'm committing fraud because the University of Michigan was not in the appropriate box on the paperwork.”
Stevens is supposed to have her second hearing at some point. She’s hoping to make clear she was not asking for anything more than she deserved.
“I haven't heard jack on that,” Stevens said of her second hearing. “In fact, I woke up in the middle of the night the other night wondering if I filed the paperwork properly.”
For now, the agency is still asking for more than $5,000 to be repaid. At least some of her part-time work has returned. Stevens said she and her husband should be able to weather the financial stress.
But after experiencing the process first-hand, Stevens said she feels for Jackson, her neighbor, and other Texans who are having to pay back money they thought they had properly requested — or fight a confusing appeals process.
“I have a feeling there are people in a lot worse shape than I am,” she said. “And I’m worried they don't know how to go about it.”