CHICAGO (CBS) — The Illinois Department of Employment Security (IDES) claims it collected more than $64 million last year in fraudulently obtained unemployment benefits.
But the 2 Investigators found that the system used to catch crooks can also snare innocent beneficiaries.
Take the case of Beata Ratulowski. She was thrilled to get back to work this spring as a road construction laborer.
Then she was notified by IDES that that she had to pay back $7,000 in unemployment benefits she received while she was laid off.
“They’re telling me I made a fraud,” Ratulowski said. “I didn’t do any kind of fraud, I didn’t do nothing wrong.”
The next day she went to the Bridgeview IDES office to try and get the mistake corrected. But she was told she had to request a hearing, which could take 30 days.
She walked out upset and crying but returned that day with a signed, notarized statement from her employer saying she received no pay for the period the state incorrectly claimed she did.
The evidence was clear enough that she thought someone in the field office could take care of the matter immediately and avoid a hearing.
Staff members refused. Nor would an office manager explain to Zekman why the case had to go to the hearing.
But later, state officials reviewed Ratulowski’s records and concluded that the agency had made a mistake. She didn’t owe a dime.
An IDES spokesman said the mistake was traced to records. Ratulowski is in their system with two different first names — Beata and Betty.
“It’s Betty in English Beata in Polish,” Ratulowski explained. “Same social security number. I thought that’s what unemployment goes by.”
In another case, Theodor Paul got into a benefits mess that thousands of others who requested extended benefits are also facing.
The state has demanded that Paul pay back more than $5,000 it overpaid him after IDES staff approved him for the wrong benefit amounts.
Paul appealed, and a state hearing officer wrote “this was a mistake by the agency.”
“I figured I won my case,” Paul said. “I mean, it states loud and clear I did nothing wrong.”
But the state sent him a letter threatening that legal action would be taken to collect the “fraud overpayments.”
“Just going blatantly out there and accusing people of fraud — that’s so wrong, very wrong,” Paul said.
His wife, Pat, added: “What are they going to do, spend a lot of money trying to collect money from someone that doesn’t have any money? I mean, that’s insane.”
State officials seem to agree. An IDES spokesman said the problem in Paul’s case was caused through a combination of factors, including rapidly changing federal rules.
Now IDES is asking the federal government to let the state forgive — or not seek repayment — in the case of Paul and 5,000 others like him who received extended benefits through July 2010.
They say that because of a change in the law, the problem has been fixed for beneficiaries who began receiving those benefits afterward.
If you’re looking for assistance from IDES, you can try calling (800) 244-5631 or log on to the IDES website and click on “Contact us.”