Mass. Gig Workers Can Fight Surprise Pandemic Aid Bills, Lawyers Say

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BOSTON (WBZ NewsRadio) — Months after some Massachusetts freelancers got emergency pandemic unemployment checks, they received a nasty surprise in the mail: the state was asking for thousands or even tens of thousands of dollars back.

Now, two unemployment lawyers say there's a way to fight those unexpected overpayment requests.

A Nasty Surprise

Gig workers, like rideshare drivers and other independent contractors, don't normally receive unemployment money, but were included in the March 2020 CARES Act.

The federal stimulus package passed in December 2020 had stricter work-proof requirements than previous legislation. Gig workers suddenly needed to prove that they had been employed the year before the pandemic hit, and the state would no longer take them at their word.

Read More: Mass. Gave Unemployment To Gig Workers. Now, It Wants Some Money Back.

The result: many gig workers like rideshare drivers and writers were alerted by the state's Office of Labor and Workforce Development this spring that they owed thousands of dollars, even though the state had originally approved the money in the first place.

A Way Out

WBZ's Karyn Regal has been covering this story, and spoke with two unemployment lawyers, who said there was a way to fight the hefty bill that may have arrived in the mail.

Peter Farrell, a partner with Cohen Cleary in Taunton, said anyone facing this situation should gather every scrap of paper that could prove they were eligible for the payments, and appeal within 30 days of getting the notice.

"You are not alone," said Farrell, who has seen dozens of these cases.

The process is often confusing: an appeal — which says that a person shouldn't need to pay the state back — is different from a waiver, which says that the person can't pay the money back.

Jill Havens, an unemployment lawyer in Jamaica Plain, said there are many reasons a person can end up on the state's "need to pay" list: not proving your identity, not properly proving that you were laid off, or if the state suspects you were working when you got unemployment, to name a few.

There are some tricks to the system. Each disqualification needs to be appealed separately, and if you have a pending appeal, you don't need to pay up yet.

"First of all, don't panic," said Havens.

The state's Labor and Workforce Development office told WBZ NewsRadio it is trying to add more staff to deal with all the appeals from this specific issue.

WBZ's Karyn Regal (@Karynregal) has been reporting on this story and has more:

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Written by Chaiel Schaffel

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