PASCO COUNTY, Fla. — Overpayments from Florida's unemployment office are being turned over to a collection agency, strapping already struggling Floridians with extras fees and fear of knocks to their credit.
I-Team Investigator Kylie McGivern revealed the problem of people returning money to the state, only to then be hit with a collection letter, back in November.
Since that time, more people have contacted the I-Team saying they, too, have received a letter from the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity's (DEO) collection agency, demanding payment and tacking on fees to a debt they've already paid to the state or are working to pay off.
Shannon Combs and her fiance Emory Salter consider themselves lucky. Salter was able to land a new job during the pandemic.
But even after updating Salter's account to reflect he had been hired and calls to DEO, unemployment payments kept loading onto his Way2Go Debit card. The couple told the I-Team, at the time, they thought the money was retroactive payments of what they were still owed after weeks of waiting on unemployment checks.
“We got our first notice, it came through on August 1," Combs said, of the overpayment notice from DEO. "I literally picked up the phone and made the phone call and was like, ‘What is going on?' Because we weren’t expecting that.”
Salter owed the state $687.
In an email to the I-Team, a DEO spokesperson said people are allowed to make voluntary payments until the debt is paid up. There was no mention of a minimum payment.
DEO's unemployment resource guide also states, "If you are unable to make the repayment in full, you may make payments on a monthly basis. DEO will accept any repayments toward an overpayment."
Combs said she sent $10, what she and her finance felt they could afford at the time.
“It was the end of the month," Combs said. "They didn’t say there had to be a minimum payment, so we just sent in something small and I was like then we’ll send in $100, $200, whatever next month."
Then, Salter received a letter from DEO's collection agency, United Collection Bureau, with a $120 collection fee added.
“We spent the last two years building my credit and worked really hard and buckled down, so getting a kick in the boot is pretty bad," Salter said.
Combs said for her and her fiance, the unemployment checks that were actually overpayments came with a hidden burden.
“They’re now putting Floridians into a situation where it’s going to be even worse on them," Combs said. "We’re dealing with kind of the repercussions of those things that we thought were going to be sort of a lifesaver for us, but now is more of a hindrance to us.”
Earlier this year, Jay Laurie showed the I-Team a collection letter he received after mailing in all of the money he was overpaid by the state.
It wasn't until after the I-Team contacted DEO that the state finally cashed the check -- nearly three months after Laurie said he mailed it.
At this time, he's still out the extra fees he paid to collections.
The I-Team reviewed DEO's contract with United Collection Bureau and found the company is paid solely through the fees it tacks on to each debt received from the state's unemployment office.
Vanessa Brito, a community activist helping people navigate the state's unemployment system, said another issue is people who've paid money to DEO they did not actually owe to try to unfreeze their unemployment account.
“Some had legitimate overpayments and some had overpayments that were caused by glitches in the system," Brito said.
Brito said she worries about the lasting impact.
"This is not just, you know, an issue within DEO and the unemployment system. This could potentially affect people’s tax returns," Brito said.
DEO has yet to answer the I-Team's repeated questions about a backlog in processing payments and has not provided the number of people turned over to collections.
RECOMMENDED: DEO: Unemployment overpayment information
It's important to know you do have a right to appeal a notice of overpayment from the state and dispute any notice from a collection agency.