AUSTIN (Nexstar) — When the childcare center where Ashley Cates sent her two children closed during the COVID-19 pandemic, she was forced to stay home with her kids.
Cates worked at a convenience store and restaurant in Lexington, Texas, about 50 miles northeast of Austin. Staying home meant no paycheck, and no paycheck meant filing for unemployment benefits from the Texas Workforce Commission.
Cates received word from the Texas Workforce Commission that her unemployment claim was approved because the pandemic forced her out of her job.
“We can pay you benefits,” stated the documentation, dated April 20.
Cates got those benefits for almost three months, but then received a letter dated July 2 from TWC stating she was overpaid for 12 weeks worth of benefits. She’s now on the hook for returning nearly $1,742.
“I don’t know how I’m going to repay it, I don’t work, I stay at home to take care of my kids,” Cates said in an interview on Thursday.
“I was depending on this money to pay my bills, and now I can’t, and I don’t know what to do,” she said, as tears welled up in her eyes.
Cates said she has attempted to contact TWC’s executive director, ombusdman, and has called close to two-dozen times, only to to be “booted out of their system because it says we can’t take any calls right now” due to long wait times.
TWC has paid out over $18.3 billion in benefits using state and federal money, an agency spokesperson said Thursday. A majority of that has come from federal funding.
More than 3.7 million Texans have filed unemployment claims since mid-March, the agency reported Thursday — adding up to over five years worth of claims in roughly four months’ time.
TWC has notified 47,000 Texans who received unemployment benefits that the agency overpaid those benefits and the money they distributed is owed back. The overpayment claims total roughly $32 million, a TWC spokesperson said.
A TWC representative said overpayment is rare.
“For the majority of people receiving benefits, it is unlikely to happen to them,” TWC spokesperson Cisco Gamez said Thursday.
The 46,000 overpayment claims is 1.27% of the more than 3.7 million unemployment claims TWC has received during the pandemic.
Gamez said the $32 million in overpaid benefits “is a big number” but represents less than .2% of the total amount distributed to Texans through the Texas Workforce Commission during the pandemic.
Cates said if TWC had an issue with her unemployment claim from the beginning, it should have been addressed before they began paying her benefits.
“This has put me in a really big bind,” Cates said. “And I find it real, real ironic they send this letter out right before my next payment request, which is scheduled for this Sunday, and now I can’t do it because I’m disqualified — because it’s a mistake on their part.”