There was good news and bad news when Cameron Duskin lost his dishwashing job in March because of the coronavirus pandemic.

The good news: He quickly qualified for unemployment benefits.

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The bad news: The state took them.

“I’m getting zero dollars and I don’t know when we’re going back to work,” he realized.

Among the hundreds of thousands of Oregonians caught in the unemployment crisis is a group of people whose benefits the state is deliberately withholding. The Oregon Employment Department believes these people were overpaid during a prior period of unemployment. So now the department is keeping their weekly benefits, despite a deadly pandemic that has driven the state’s unemployment rate to its highest level since the Great Depression.

Cameron Duskin outside his apartment complex on June 8, 2020. The state has withheld his regular unemployment benefits during the pandemic, believing he was not entitled to benefits he received in the past.

Cameron Duskin outside his apartment complex on June 8, 2020. The state has withheld his regular unemployment benefits during the pandemic, believing he was not entitled to benefits he received in the past.

Kate Davidson / OPB

In Beaverton, Duskin panicked. Even though the department was keeping his regular state benefits, he had started receiving an extra $600 a week from the federal CARES Act.

Then, he found out the state planned to take half of that too.

“That is a federal requirement,” said OED acting director David Gerstenfeld, of the policy to withhold some CARES Act benefits in overpayment cases.

In Tigard, 63-year old Penny Walker waited nine weeks to hear the fate of her unemployment claim. Only then did she learn she had to forfeit eight weeks of checks because of a prior overpayment.

“It’s been pure hell,” she said. “Pure hell.”

The dishwasher’s perspective

Unemployment fraud is real. It happens.

Washington's unemployment system is reeling from the coordinated heist of hundreds of millions of dollars. Thieves used stolen personal information to file bogus claims, exploiting the coronavirus pandemic for criminal gain.

But overpayments are usually far more mundane, often resulting from mistakes or miscommunication.

During the pandemic, these errors are coming back to bite people when they’re once again in need.

After losing a job in the Great Recession, Cameron Duskin worked part-time at a call center while collecting unemployment. In 2011, the state accused him of fraud. He swears he doesn’t know why.

“Obviously I did something wrong, that’s what they claimed,” he said.

In his file of unemployment papers is a finding of willful misrepresentation. The state said he was not truly “available for work” while claiming benefits because he wasn’t willing to work all the hours and days customary to his occupation. Duskin says he never turned down a full-time job.

“I might have made a human error, but I was unaware of it until a year and a half later when they told me,” he said.

The “error” came with a price-tag: Duskin was to repay $14,684 in unemployment benefits plus a $2,200 fine.

Cameron Duskin at his apartment on June 8, 2020. Because of a prior overpayment, the state has withheld his regular unemployment insurance benefits during the coronavirus pandemic.

Cameron Duskin at his apartment on June 8, 2020. Because of a prior overpayment, the state has withheld his regular unemployment insurance benefits during the coronavirus pandemic.

Kate Davidson / OPB

Over the years, that debt grew even bigger, because the state of Oregon charged interest.

Duskin says his call center wages were garnished. When he became a dishwasher at Red Robin, those wages were garnished too. He never made enough money to cover the interest, let alone the principal.

In January 2020, the Oregon Department of Revenue sent him a letter. It had been charged with collecting the debt, which stood at nearly $30,000.

Then, the coronavirus pandemic hit. Duskin was thrust back into the unemployment system, at least temporarily.

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His job at Red Robin had suited him. Duskin has anxiety and suffers panic attacks. He never wanted the pressure of working a restaurant floor. Losing his job and then losing his state benefits was “beyond devastating.”

“You don’t know if you’re going to lose your apartment. You don’t know what’s going to happen and neither does anybody else,” he said. “The empathy from the government was very not there.”

He still had the extra $600 a week from the federal government, at least through July. He started withdrawing money from his bank account and hiding it, fearing that would be taken too.

The state’s perspective

When a person is paid benefits they’re not entitled to, Oregon tries to recoup the money. The idea is to save it for jobless people with legitimate claims.

There are several ways that overpayments happen. There is fraud, including the willful representation of which Duskin was accused. There are also errors: the state makes them, employers make them, and claimants do, too.

In Oregon, people are still considered at “fault” when they make innocent mistakes that result in an overpayment. That has consequences.

In March, the employment department recognized the financial hardship caused by the pandemic and waived the recovery of overpayments that are not considered a person’s fault. However, it continues to keep 100% of people’s current unemployment insurance benefits when it thinks they are responsible for past overpayments.

That leaves hundreds of people watching every week as the state withholds a lifeline during an economic catastrophe.

Other states withhold less. Washington, for example, keeps half of current benefits to offset non-fraud overpayments.

Acting director David Gerstenfeld said Oregon’s employment department has the legal flexibility to withhold less than 100% of weekly benefits, but not the technical flexibility.

“It is not as easy as just going to a screen and erasing the 100% and putting in 50% or something else,” he said. “It does require some extensive coding by our technology team.”

It's the same core issue that has plagued the delivery of unemployment benefits to hundreds of thousands of Oregonians: cumbersome, outdated technology that is ill-equipped for the nimbleness that pandemic response requires.

Gerstenfeld said the department has focused technology resources on rolling out new federal programs that get the most help to the most people.

Even in states such as Washington, advocates say offsetting benefits can have dire outcomes for low-income people. Missing a piece of mail with a hearing date or appeals deadline could mean getting stuck with an overpayment of $500 or even $15,000.

“Then interest is added and wages are garnished. Bank accounts are attached, tax refunds are intercepted, and liens are placed on property,” said John Tirpak of the Seattle-based Unemployment Law Project. “And during the pandemic, in spite of our advocacy, they are still collecting overpayments in Washington state.”

Good news and bad news

After nine weeks of waiting, Penny Walker finally got her unemployment claim approved.

The denial letters week after week took a toll on her. She burned through savings.

“I’m a very optimistic kind of a go-getter kind of a gal,” she said. “But my emotions — I just can’t even function sometimes day-to-day. I look at my family, I’m like how am I gonna pay my mortgage?”

Walker won’t be paid for the two months she spent in limbo. She just learned she is disqualified from receiving eight weeks of checks, as a penalty for a one-time overpayment in 2018.

Walker knew about the overpayment and tried to appeal it. She says she worked out a payment plan with the state and was $70 away from completing it when the pandemic hit and she lost her job again. In Oregon, once a person is back on unemployment, penalties and offsets automatically kick in.

The Oregon Employment Department is working to implement the next round of offsets, to meet federal requirements for CARES Act benefit programs. That includes withholding 50% of the extra $600 per week known as PUC, in order to help repay prior overpayments.

Cameron Duskin walks back to his apartment on June 8, 2020. He worried the coronavirus pandemic would land him in unemployment again.

Cameron Duskin walks back to his apartment on June 8, 2020. He worried the coronavirus pandemic would land him in unemployment again.

Kate Davidson / OPB

That weekly $600 was all Cameron Duskin had. Still, in June, there was good news and bad news again.

The good news: His restaurant reopened, and he started going back to work.

The bad news: He still owes the state nearly $30,000. He’s scared the virus will shutter restaurants and put him out of work again.

He’s hoping he can get his debt written off.

“I am very fearful. I’ve never been this fearful in my life,” he said.

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