INDIANAPOLIS — The state of Indiana is demanding some people repay thousands of dollars in unemployment benefits they received during the pandemic.
Two women received the money back in 2020, but received letters from the Indiana Department of Workforce Development nearly three years later asking for the money back.
Olivia Newton lives in Brownsburg and works as a nurse in the trauma ICU helping others.
But now, she’s the one who needs help.
"It sounds like their mistake and I shouldn't have to pay for that,” said Newton. “I didn't do anything wrong."
In January 2023, Newton received a letter from DWD demanding she repay $11,225 in unemployment benefits.
“I was in shock, scared, and panicked,” said Newton.
Newton received two more letters—each giving her 15 days to pay, and warning Newton if she doesn’t, the state can garnish her wages.
"It would be nice to have a reason,” said Newton. “I don't know why I was overpaid."
Back in March 2020, Newton was a student at Ball State University, working at a tanning salon, when COVID-19 forced them to shut down.
"I applied for unemployment and I got approved for that,” said Newton.
She says unemployment money helped her stay afloat when she could not find a job.
"I was not living a lavish lifestyle because of it,” said Newton. “Rent, food, living expenses, school is expensive."
Amanda Douglas in Rossville is in a similar situation.
DWD wants her to repay nearly $16,000 in unemployment benefits.
“I’m literally sick over this,” said Douglas.
Douglas worked at a hair salon that had to shut down for a time during the pandemic.
Douglas received unemployment while she was out of work and when her pay was drastically cut because of social distancing at the salon.
“Three years later, they're coming back to me and telling me I need to pay back $16,000, which I don't know where that's going to come from,” said Douglas. “I have no clue where I'm going to get it."
The DWD said Douglas was “not unemployed” and “not entitled to benefits.”
"If this was the case, why didn't they figure this out three years ago?” said Douglas.
Douglas said she answered every single question truthfully when she applied for unemployment benefits.
Newton’s daughter has Type 1 diabetes.
"She is on a pump and we are struggling financially,” said Douglas. “We don't have the money for her medication."
Amanda Douglas and Olivia Newton asked WRTV Investigates for help.
WRTV Investigates Kara Kenney contacted Indiana DWD about their cases, and the agency declined to provide someone to interview on camera.
“Due to confidentiality by statute, DWD is unable to speak on specific unemployment claims – including cases related to claimants and employers,” said Randy Spieth, a DWD spokesperson in an email to WRTV.
Coady Wing is an associate professor at IU’s O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs.
“It could be the employer’s fault, the claimant’s fault or the Department of Workforce Development’s fault,” said Wing.
Wing says overpayments can happen when the state aims to get benefits out quickly.
"If you take too long then the benefit isn't really accomplishing its mission,” said Wing.
Wing said it is a normal part of the unemployment process.
“Yes I think there's always some degree of overpayment,” said Wing.
WRTV Investigates found the problem is happening in all 50 states.
Indiana has had $121 million in unemployment overpayments since the pandemic began, records show.
"Do we think if the government gives you too much money you should get to keep it?” said Wing. “I doubt most people would agree."
As WRTV has reported, DWD is working to root out fraud within the unemployment system.
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A DWD spokesperson said when it comes to overpayment, people can appeal or request a waiver.
The waiver application can be found at www.unemployment.IN.gov under “Forms and Downloads.”
“If a claimant appeals or requests a waiver, there will be no attempt to collect the overpayment until those processes are resolved,” said DWD spokesperson Randy Spieth in an email to WRTV. “If an individual is eligible for benefits, they would not have an overpayment. An explanation to this determination can be found on claimants’ Uplink account.”
DWD has fully or partially processed 28,191 waivers over the last three years, said Spieth.
“Processed means the waiver was fully overturned, and the claimant does not have to pay back any amount,” said Spieth in an email to WRTV. “Or if it was partially, the amount determined was less than the original overpayment amount.”
WRTV Investigates also asked DWD how much longer they will be sending demand letters to people in Indiana.
“DWD is monitoring federal proposals and decisions that would impact the review of cases and the timeframe you inquire about,” said Spieth in an email to WRTV.
Olivia Newton has requested a waiver.
Amanda Douglas filed an appeal and lost.
She now works for herself doing hair, and knows the state can garnish her wages or even take her tax refund.
Douglas is trying to work out a payment plan with the state.
“It could be years before they get this money back from me,” said Douglas. “I have no clue how I'm going to come up with it."
WRTV Investigates reached out to state and federal lawmakers.
Congressman Andre Carson’s office provided the following statement:
“Pandemic Unemployment Assistance payments were disbursed by the Indiana Department of Workforce Development (DWD) at the discretion of the State of Indiana,” read the statement. “Individuals affected are encouraged to keep track of any communication from DWD and deadlines. Individuals are also encouraged to take note of the appeals process listed on their letter, which is done through an Administrative Law Judge per Indiana state law.”