By Matt Kempner, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Troy Warren for CNT #EditorsPicks
Employer filed claims. Worker: “I was completely confused, panicked.”
Not long before Christmas, Haven Whiteman got a letter from the Georgia Department of Labor. It shook the 28-year-old Atlantan, a former restaurant server assistant who had seen her regular pay and hours plummet during much of the pandemic.
Within 30 days, pay nearly $7,000, the state’s letter said. More than a year earlier, during 2020, “you knowingly and willfully failed to report and/or incorrectly reported your earnings,” the letter stated. Whiteman, it said, would have to reimburse both correct and incorrect unemployment payments she had received and pay more than $600 for a “fraud penalty.”
Also, the state warned in capital letters, “CRIMINAL PENALTIES” may be imposed should the case be submitted for prosecution.
“I was completely confused, panicked,” Whiteman said.
The primary reason for the surprise: She wasn’t the one who filed the unemployment claims. Like millions of other Georgians during the pandemic, her employer at the time had filed the claims on her behalf, benefits that were supposed to help compensate for reduced or eliminated pay as the economy went into a tailspin.
Such steps were required by the state in hopes that it would make it quicker and easier for the labor department to handle an overwhelming and unprecedented deluge of unemployment claims filed early in the pandemic.
Whiteman said that in response to a labor department query in October she had explained that the 2020 filings had been made by her then-employer, Rocket Farm Restaurants. She said she hadn’t known until the state questioned her that in the claims Rocket Farm had repeatedly failed to report any or most of the income it had paid her, though it was required to do so. The omissions led to the overpayments, she said.
It turned out she wasn’t the only one with that complaint about Rocket Farm, which had nearly 1,400 employees at the start of the pandemic, and whose well-known local restaurants include The Optimist, Superica and St. Cecilia.
It isn’t clear exactly how many might have received overpayments or state demands for reimbursements and penalties. Two others who worked for the company told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution about similar experiences. They complained in late December that Rocket Farm wasn’t stepping up to take responsibility or help covers the costs.
“We didn’t do anything wrong. We were unemployed during the pandemic,” said Qolett Richardson-Jackson. Like Whiteman, she had worked at St. Cecilia in Buckhead.
Ford Fry, the successful chef and leader of Rocket Farm, did not answer questions about how many of its employees faced similar issues. But in a text message he wrote that the company “has been investigating potential issues with reporting wages” to the labor department. “We take this seriously and are actively working to fully understand the issues and their impact.”
He said the company is “aware that some corrections will be necessary” and intends ”to cover any resulting interest or monetary fines those employees might face as a result.”
Kersha Cartwright, a spokeswoman for the state department of labor, said Rocket Farm appeared to have filed claims on behalf of fewer than 100 employees, perhaps about 75.
Early in the pandemic, plenty of workers who lost hours or jobs sometimes struggled to understand how much they were supposed to get in unemployment, including when factoring in new and expanded benefit programs. And far more people were seeking benefits than ever before.
Georgia’s labor department staff was overwhelmed. For months it was virtually impossible for many people to reach a human at the department. Many Georgians complained that their claims often went unpaid for weeks or months, sometimes because of small mistakes in filings. State officials, meanwhile, tried to deal with the onslaught, even as they worried about protecting against potential fraud.
In recent months, Georgia’s weekly claims for unemployment benefits have returned to pre-pandemic levels of 5,000 or less, after reaching nearly 400,000 in April 2020 and regularly topping 20,000 in the first half of 2021. The Rocket Farm payments dispute suggests the state department of labor is still working through mountains of filings related to claims.
Rocket Farm isn’t the only company in Georgia that has faced issues tied to overpayments, according to Cartwright. She said she could not say how many Rocket Farm workers or other Georgians had received so-called determination letters from the department seeking overpayments tied to claims filed by their employers. She wrote that the department doesn’t code information in a way to make that possible.
But she shared statistics suggesting that employee error — rather than employer error — was the source of the vast majority of more than 50,000 non-fraud overpayments of regular unemployment benefits discovered during much of the pandemic.
After the AJC queried the labor department about cases involving Whiteman and Richardson-Jackson, the department waived the penalties after “it was determined it was not fraud” on their part, Cartwright said.
She pointed out that workers confronted by the state related to overpayment of unemployment benefits can file appeals or waivers. The state is legally obligated to seek reimbursement of overpaid unemployment benefits, she said. “We need the money back so we can put it back where it belongs.”
Whiteman left Rocket Farm in early 2021 and now works for an online beauty company. Richardson-Jackson left last August and is employed by a medical lab that does COVID testing.
— staff writer Michael E. Kanell contributed to this article
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