Federal bill would shield workers from surprise repayment of pandemic unemployment benefits

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A Washington state congresswoman has drafted legislation to protect workers from having to pay back federal pandemic unemployment assistance if agencies mistakenly pay them these benefits.

Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-WA sponsored the Relief for Working Families Act in response to a ProPublica news investigation that showed the economic devastation some workers face when asked to repay unemployment funds they were authorized to receive. The investigation spotlighted the plight of Everett resident Ahmad Ghabboun, who in August recieved a bill for nearly $15,000 from Washington state’s unemployment agency, formally known as the Employment Security Department (ESD).

Ghabboun had been collecting weekly payments through the emergency Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) program since his work as a gig economy delivery driver died off in May. At one point, he made a mistake filling out the the online form required to verify eligibility for the benefits. Despite reassurances from ESD that the error had been corrected, Ghabboun was disqualified from all payments he had received up that point, which totaled nearly $15,000.

If Rep. Herrera Beutler’s bill passes, state unemployment agencies like ESD could offer PUA overpayment waivers to people who were not at fault and for whom such repayment would compound financial hardship. It is important to note that the bill pertains to federal unemployment overpayments like PUA, which bans debt forgiveness. State already have the authority to offer hardship waivers to people who are mistakenly overpaid state unemployment benefits.

ESD eventually helped clear the debt from Ghabboun’s account, reimburse him for the money he put toward paying off that debt, and authorized him to receive future unemployment payments. But it is unclear how helpful the state would have been if Ghabboun’s case had not received public attention from the news investigation.

“I want a solution that helps everyone,” he told ProPublica. “It’s not fair that this is happening.”

Herrera Beutler said that if the bill does not move forward in the lame-duck session, she plans to reintroduce it in the next session of Congress.


If you have an unemployment benefits, workers’ compensation, L&I, or other employment law claim, contact Emery Reddy for a free consultation. You won’t get better advice.

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