A CLOSER LOOK: Arkansas overpays $3M in unemployment benefits during COVID-19

A Closer Look

"I feel like a criminal having to collect unemployment, that's how the system makes me feel"

ARKANSAS (KNWA/KFTA) — Thousands of Arkansans have been overpaid unemployment benefits, according to the Division of Workforce Services (DWS).

“In the third quarter of 2020, we detected and established 4,650 overpayments totaling $3,209,859,” according to DWS Communications Director Zoe Calkins.

  • 3rd quarter: July 1 to September 30
  • 4th quarter: October 1 to December 31

During the same period, the state collected $1,366,784.69, according to Calkins. This amount reflects voluntary and involuntary repayments and includes: offset of benefits, garnishments, court-ordered payments, intercept of federal and state tax refunds, according to DWS.

Currently, the state does not have data on Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) overpayments — if any.

The PUA is a temporary federal program created through the CARES Act. It was signed into law on March 27, 2020, by President Trump. It provided up to 39 weeks of unemployment payments. PUA is the same program that offered an additional $600 weekly benefit for those who qualified. Also, as part of the CARES Act, Congress added 13 weeks of additional benefits called Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation (PEUC). That program is set to expire at the end of the year, as is the PUA program.

To be clear, not all of the overpayments were from the 3rd quarter.

“Recoveries made during this quarter can be related to overpayments that were found in previous quarters,” said Calkins. “Likewise, overpayments identified during this quarter may be recovered in future quarters.”

Calkins said there are several thousands of investigations, in several stages of completion, at any point in time.

If an overpayment debt has been determined the state has ways to legally collect the funds.

  • The intercept of state and federal income tax refunds
  • Monthly billing and payment arrangements
  • An offset of unemployment benefits from Arkansas and other states
  • Garnishments
  • Criminal and Civil Actions
  • Filing of liens to secure collection

Calkins said it is important to note the difference between “identity theft fraud overpayments” and “non-fraud overpayments” on a legitimate unemployment insurance (UI) claim. 

If an overpayment is caused by fraud, the DWS can use the criminal process for repayment, and interest is charged at the rate of 10% per year. No interest is charged on non-fraud overpayments (Non-fraud overpayments would result either when payments are made by mistake by DWS or by mistake of the claimant and then reported to DWS).

Arkansas is not alone in overpayments. North Carolina, North Dakota, Louisiana, Ohio, Texas are a few of the states asking for refunds for overpayments, according to government agencies in those states.

Arkansas’ labor force is 1.3 million, with 1.2 million employed, according to the state’s Division of Workforce Services (ADWS). The state’s population is a bit more than 3 million, according to census bureau data from 2010.

The state’s unemployment rate is 7.3%, the national average is 7.9%, as of September 2020 ADWS labor statistics reports.


Miss E, 48, lives in Little Rock and is grateful that she only has herself to take care of during 2020. “I have adult kids and I’m not nearly in a bad situation as most,” she said.

She is collecting regular unemployment because she had worked for many years until December 2019. Early in 2020, she was self-employed, but that ended due to product deregulation, and that turned into a lack of business.

She applied for unemployment in March and received her first check at the end of April.

Today, she can’t imagine the nightmare people have while looking for help. “I hear people say, ‘they [bank] took my car, I’ve been evicted,'” she said. “I can’t imagine having children in this.”

While she has been healthy during the pandemic stress is what makes her sick — per se. Her last day of work was February 2020 and she’s never been through anything like this. “I call every day. Nobody is hiring for anything unless it’s for a fast-food worker or to drive a commercial truck.”

Sleeping can come in waves. “A lot of times I don’t sleep especially when the stress sets in,” she said. “It’s one of the biggest emotional issues.”

Miss E grew up on a farm. At four years of age, she began to work on the farm. At 14, she collected some money for working in the fields. She has never been on welfare, she has always worked. “Here I am today, feeling like a criminal when what I need is the little bit of financial assistance from a system that I have paid into.”

Miss E, asked for her name to be withheld. She’s 48 and from Little Rock

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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