Colorado wants improper jobless benefits repaid

The Associated Press

DENVER – For the second year in a row, Colorado officials say they overpaid millions of dollars in unemployment benefits and they want it back.

About $128 million is due to the state and federal government for overpayments last year. Officials blame it on fraud and clerical error.

Last year, the state recovered about $73 million in improperly paid funds. Some of the money was written off or clients were given waivers.

Keith Nickerson of Denver says he collected unemployment for more than a year before he was told he did not qualify. He now owes the state $5,000 and he wants the state to explain why he owes it.

“If it wasn’t valid, why did you pay me for over a year?” Nickerson said. “When I talked to them, they told me I was right, but that’s the way it is.”

Amelia Kelii of Parker was told months after receiving unemployment payments that she did not qualify. She now owes more than $1,000 that she says she does not have.

“If we deliberately lie about our information, they are quick to prosecute, but if they make a mistake, we still have to pay for their mistake,” Kelii said.

Overpayments can occur because people are unavailable for work, they failed to meet the number of required job contacts during the week, or they failed to register with a workforce center.

State officials say if someone cannot repay, they may apply for a waiver. If the account is sent to Colorado Central Collection Services, state and federal income-tax refunds and any gaming or lottery winnings can be intercepted.

Last year’s overpayments in Colorado account for nearly 2 percent of the $5 billion in erroneous unemployment payments made by states nationwide in 2011, Labor Department spokesman Jason Kuruvilla said. He said nationwide, states recovered nearly $983 million last year.

In an email to the Denver Post ( ), Colorado Department of Labor and Employment spokeswoman Cher Haavind said more than 96 percent are administrative errors.

She said the errors are a result of complex rules, but that doesn’t excuse claimants from repayment.

She said the state has hired more people to keep track of the money.

Last year, Gov. John Hickenlooper ordered the department to reduce its rate of improper-payment errors to less than 10 percent, which is considered an acceptable amount by the federal government. At that time, the state unemployment office said a total of $305 million had been paid improperly from 2008 through 2010.

Haavind said since the governor’s order, the rate of improper payments has declined to just over 14 percent.

Haavind said the state balance carries over from year to year, but officials believe they can still recover the money, even if it is years later.

Information from: The Denver Post,

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