By Christina Hager

BOSTON (CBS) – Imagine losing your job, being denied benefits, and then getting a notice that you owe thousands of dollars back to the state. WBZ’s I-Team found it’s happening to people across Massachusetts.

Retired Braintree police officer Kevin McHugh lost his job at Lo-Jack. After collecting unemployment benefits for a short time, he was denied because of a clerical error on his account. Next thing he knew, “I had a letter from them that said you owe us…$1,100 and change.”

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He called the Department of Unemployment Assistance repeatedly to clear it up. “Nobody ever called me back. I finally realized well nobody’s going to call me back. They’re not calling anybody back.” He said he spent so much time trying to get through, by the time he filed an appeal, it was denied because it was three days late. Bottom line: he’s been out of work, unable to collect assistance, and now has a hefty bill from the unemployment office. “I mean it seems just foolish,” he said.

He’s not alone. Sara Wilkins is a concert cellist. “My last pre-pandemic performance was on March 13. It was actually a Friday the 13th and the next day everything was shut down,” she said. When she called the unemployment office, an employee told her to apply for assistance. “So I did, and I was approved”, she said.

A few months later, she got a notice. “They wanted all the money back, which came to over $6,000…panic, anxiety, fear.” She was so stressed, she borrowed the money from her parents and sent a check. “I FedExed it so I could get signature confirmation,” she said. But she was later told that state employees were not even working in the office where she sent the check, and had no record that she paid. “They’ve now given me notice since I’ve gotten two of these monthly bills, that if they don’t receive the money immediately they can garnish any tax refund I might get this year.”

“You have people who are effectively terrorized by the government,” said Greg Sullivan with the Pioneer Institute, a government accountability think tank in Boston. He says across the country, states are waiving such fees when they involve innocent people. “If the government has made a mistake, and governments make mistakes…you know that, so if the government has made a mistake, you have to appeal and ask for a waiver.”

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Worcester dad Jordan Richardson lost his job driving kids with special needs to school. He was unable to collect unemployment benefits because he says someone had stolen his social security number, and used it to file a fraudulent claim. The WBZ I-Team obtained records showing 116,405 fraud cases were filed just in the last three months alone. After Richardson sent the state documentation to prove his identity, “I looked online at my status, and it just said I owed $15,000,” he said. “It was a hit. It was a big hit. My stomach turned.”

The I-Team asked Governor Charlie Baker if his administration would consider waiving these types of fees. “We will do everything we can within the rules of the program to support people in any way we can, but the program does have rules, those rules are enforced by the feds and the feds do audit the program, and have made it very clear…that states will be held accountable for complying with the program.”

“I can’t even express the stress and anxiety that I have off of this,” said Richardson. “Not being able to reach anybody is detrimental, not only to my household, my son, but my mental health as well.”

Weeks after talking with the I-Team, Richardson said the fees on his account with the Massachusetts Department of Unemployment Assistance suddenly disappeared without any explanation. He’s relieved, but confused. More than a dozen people have contacted the I-Team saying they’ve recently received similar notices saying they owe the state thousands of dollars.

“The Department of Unemployment Assistance (DUA) continues to support workers through these challenging times and address an unprecedented nationwide fraud scheme,” a spokesperson with the Department of Unemployment assistance told the I-Team.

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“To protect the integrity of the system and comply with federal requirements, DUA continues to implement additional identity verification measures which may, unfortunately, slow the process of claimants receiving benefits. Individuals may also receive notices related to fraudulent unemployment payments connected to the nationwide scheme. DUA continues to help people with issues by providing detailed instructions for reporting fraud and responding to concerns through the call center, which scaled up from 50 in-person employees before the pandemic to over 600 remote employees today and has the capacity to connect with over 15,000 constituents per day. DUA will continue to work with law enforcement to combat the fraud scheme and ensure all eligible claimants can access the benefits they deserve.”

Christina Hager