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Senators: Indiana leaders need to end silence on unemployment benefit overpayments

INDIANAPOLIS (WISH) — I-Team 8 on Wednesday asked Indiana’s governor, the state commissioner of Workforce Development, and the Republican leaders in the Indiana House of Representatives and the Senate to talk about the growing complaints with Workforce Development.

Senate Democrats are demanding the governor order waivers for people who are being forced to repay nonfraudulent, pandemic unemployment benefits. The Democrats want state leaders to come out from the shadows and talk about what is happening inside the Department of Workforce Development. Fred Payne leads the department.

Legislators are home for the summer, and the House and Senate chambers are silent; no legislative meetings are scheduled this week. Otherwise at the Statehouse in downtown Indianapolis, activity can be seen in the governor’s office, but the governor’s staff told I-Team 8 that Republican Gov. Eric Holcomb was not available for an interview Wednesday.

However, some state senators talked Wednesday with I-Team 8 about the pandemic unemployment benefits.

State Sen. David Niezgodski, a Democrat from South Bend, said, “The way I understand it, this is not dollars that are being waived because of fraud. These are dollars that they are seeking to be waived through to no fault of these unemployed persons whatsoever. You know, most of them, they had no idea that they were getting overpayments.”

News 8 has received more than 700 complaints about the Department of Workforce Development since Friday.

Almost a third of the complaints sent to News 8 are about forced repayment of unemployment benefits. Those are benefits people were eligible for, but the state has since said it found issues and wants the money back.

State Sen. Karen Tallian, a Democrat from Portage, said, “Look, we know that during the pandemic year there were over 800,000 individuals who made claims. DWD may have been understaffed before, but they were certainly understaffed and not prepared for that. You know, we don’t know exactly the reason for the overpayments.”

Tallian sits on the Senate Labor Committee and was part of a panel of lawmakers who met weekly with Workforce Development leaders during the coronavirus pandemic. She says that Indiana law allows the governor and the commissioner of Workforce Development to offer waivers for overpayments 

She said Wednesday, “I looked up the code this morning. It’s specifically in there that says … there is a provision that DWD can do this. So, my guess is that we just need to push on Mr. Payne and Gov. Holcomb and demand that this happens.”

On Tuesday, I-Team 8 reported all of Indiana’s surrounding states — Kentucky, Ohio, Illinois and Michigan — have created overpayment waiver programs for federal benefits.

Tallian says the federal government in the last six months has given Indiana $900 million to cover unemployment benefits, and plenty of money exists to waive Workforce Development’s overpayments.

Again, I-Team 8 has asked how many people are targeted by the state to repay pandemic unemployment benefits. However, no one in state government can tell I-Team 8 how many people were overpaid and how much money was sent out.

I-Team 8 will continue to press the governor and the commissioner of Workforce Development for straight answers.