Troubleshooter gets results for worker who was told she'd have to pay back $8,300 in unemployment benefits

MORRISVILLE, N.C. (WTVD) -- Imagine being unemployed and the state disputing your owed benefits and then waiting months to prove your case. That's the reality for thousands of consumers here in North Carolina as the state tries to tackle its backlog of appealed cases.

Jessica Gonzalez got a letter in the mail from the North Carolina Division of Employment Security stating she had an overpayment in unemployment benefits of more than $8,300.

"The DES put in the system I was working reduced hours, which I didn't. I was totally shut down," Gonzalez said.

Gonzalez is a long-time employee of Carmen's Cuban Café in Morrisville. The restaurant is open now, but it was shut down in March 2020 at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic when state restrictions were in place.

Gonzalez filed for unemployment when she was out of work and got it until the eatery reopened and she went back to work.

Then out of the blue, months later, she got the paperwork from DES stating she must pay back the unemployment.

"They tried to contact your employer and they denied you because your employer didn't answer, and that didn't make sense to me," she said they told her.

Gonzalez filed an appeal, and her employer even wrote a letter in support, saying she deserved the unemployment benefits and confirmed she was out of work while the restaurant was shut down. Her employer said they didn't get any correspondence from DES.

"It's really frustrating because my co-workers did unemployment and it looks like I'm the only one who has to go through this," Gonzalez said.

Despite filing an appeal before the March deadline, she didn't hear anything from DES except getting more letters that her wages would be garnished if she didn't start repayment.

Gonzalez is not alone in waiting for an update on her appeal. According to the latest numbers reported to the US Department of Labor, the average age of pending appeal cases for North Carolina is 131 days, slightly more than a four-month wait time. North Carolina ranks eighth in the country with the most pending cases, and 85% of those cases are 41-360 days old.

"Since April 1, 2020, DES has received approximately 90,000 appeals," a DES representative said. "To date, about 71% of those have been heard. We currently have about 75 appeals referees holding hearings. Each appeals referee may be scheduled for up to seven to nine hearings a day. Most, but not all, are completed within one day; some are continued.

"DES is working to reduce the backlog quickly, while still ensuring a fair process and opportunity for people to be heard," the representative added. "Hiring appeals referees has been a challenge, in part because they must be attorneys licensed to practice law in North Carolina. DES hired a large number in a relatively short time, but there has been some turnover. We are in the process of recruiting and hiring more referees."

As for Gonzalez, after the ABC11 Troubleshooter got involved, it took some time, but her case was resolved and she no longer owes the $8,300 in overpayment.
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