Overpaid by the state, man can't get anyone to take back the money


Fox Undercover (MyFoxBoston.com) -- For one Cape Cod ferry worker, the end of the tourist season started as always: laid off on Columbus Day, followed soon by his applying for unemployment. Because his weekly benefit is usually around $100 a week, he didn't rush to see how much he was getting.

When he finally checked the state-issued debit card a few weeks later, he got a shock: instead of a few hundred dollars, the state Department of Unemployment Assistance had sent him $11,397.

"Jackpot!," the man said.

It's a joke from the seasonal worker, who asked that is identity not be revealed, because he has no intention of keeping the money. Besides the fact that it isn't his, he's afraid the state would come after him once the mistake is noticed.

So he wants to give it back. He's trying to give it back. He just can't get anyone from the state to do anything.

"I've called probably eight or 10 different numbers. I once got a hold of a woman and I told them my story and she said to me, ‘Oh my God.' Then she said, ‘Well that's way above my pay grade to deal with'… It just went nowhere," he said. "It's wicked frustrating."

His records show that this year, he's supposed to be getting $117 each week, no more than $2,300 for the year.

A preview of his current problem came last year when he received three separate checks each more than $900, none of which he should have gotten.

"Nobody seems to know about this check or what should be done with it. What I did is I tore that one up and then a lady called me, and this was several weeks later, she said, ‘If you get another one, cash it.' I said, ‘Really? I didn't earn this money. It shouldn't be coming to me.' She said, ‘Just cash it'," he recalled.

"How much money were you supposed to be getting?" FOX Undercover reporter Mike Beaudet asked him.

"I was just getting I believe $87 dollars a week," he replied.

His efforts then to fix the problem went just as badly as they did this year.

"I bet I've been on hold five or six times for two hours," he said. "My phone dies after two hours and I have to hang it up so I can use it for something useful."

It turns out the man is not alone. The Massachusetts Department of Unemployment Assistance has been plagued with errors thanks to a $46 million computer upgrade that went into effect July 1, two years late.

Michelle Amante, director of the Department of Unemployment Assistance, said the state has been upfront about the problems but insisted "The system is working for the vast majority of our claimants."

"We talked with a man who was given more than $11,000 in benefits, and says he can't even get in touch with someone to give the money back. What's going on?" Beaudet asked her.

"I can't specifically talk about any claimant but if that is a problem we'll work to address it right away," Amante said.

The seasonal worker said he was called by someone from the Department of Unemployment Assistance after FOX Undercover called the state asking about his situation, but hasn't gotten a follow-up call. The state says there are more than a dozen people who have had similar problems of getting benefits they didn't deserve.

"Why is it so hard to get a human being on the phone here?" Beaudet asked Amante.

"Our average wait time is between 40 and 45 minutes. I know that's very frustrating for a claimant. That's frustrating for us too," Amante replied. "The good news is, with the new system, 97 percent of our claimants can access it online through self-service or through our Telecert system."

The computer problems at the Department of Unemployment Assistance are now the subject of an investigation by the state Senate Post Audit and Oversight Committee.

"We all know there were a lot of people who had complaints because they weren't either getting their money or they were getting letters that they owed money that they never even received," Sen. Cynthia Creem, D-Newton, who chairs the committee, told FOX Undercover.

The committee has expanded its investigation to look at other big computer upgrades in the state. At the state Department of Revenue, a computer contract was terminated midway through a $114 million project. And the Registry of Motor Vehicles has just started a $77 million upgrade of its computers. The Registrar has said there is additional oversight in place to keep problems in check.

"What we're hoping to accomplish is not only to look at the Department of Labor but to look at all these IT programs and how do they work and are they working, can we make them better?" Creem told FOX Undercover.

Sen. Creem is not the only one hoping things get better.

"I think that their computers are spitting out stuff and that's the word of God as far as they're concerned. They just fold it over and send it out and nobody knows what's going on," the Cape Cod seasonal worker said.

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