HONOLULU (KHON2) — Tens of thousands of people have been surviving on Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) for months now, but some are being told they owe it all back. Always Investigating found out why it is happening to many people across Hawaii.
Individuals desperately trying to make it financially through the pandemic reached out to KHON2’s Action Line after getting letters telling them something was wrong with the PUA they had been getting for months.
When tourism came to a screeching halt due to COVID in early 2020, so did the only source of income for Gina Sayf, an Oahu resident who owned and operated a legal vacation rental in Waikiki. Unemployment insurance would not cover a self-run operation like hers.
“Once PUA was mentioned, I literally ran to do that, and immediately I got a response,” Sayf said, “so I was thinking, well, thank goodness, you know. I’m so glad I did that.”
She received $200 per week since spring, and then successfully applied for the $600 federal plus-up, which kept her and her young family afloat.
“It was great. It was perfect,” Sayf said. “It was like it was meant to be.”
Or meant not to be, according to the state, which recently rescinded her eligibility, and now her account says: “You owe $15,681.”
“That just made my situation 10 times worse than if they would have just said ‘no,’” Sayf said. “I wish they would have rejected me or not even answered me. Even just to be pending until now would have done me a favor, instead of say yes, and then figure out ‘oops, sorry.’”
She is far from alone. KHON2 heard from others, including rideshare drivers being told to get off PUA, payback tens of thousands of dollars, and re-file for regular unemployment. This is despite the rideshare operators who are still waging battle with the state over their classification as an employer.
Always Investigating reached out to the labor director for more information.
“In the very beginning, when Department of Taxation had PUA and they were taking over PUA, they had just paid. In the beginning, there was no match up with unemployment insurance, to see if they could possibly file the claim for unemployment insurance,” said Anne Perreira-Eustaquio, Director of the State Department of Labor and Industrial Relations (DLIR), “and everyone just filed for PUA. Whoever filed, as long as they listed in self-certify, they were paid.”
Now that the state has had more time to review each file, they are telling people like Sayf that a rental is passive income, which is not qualified for a pandemic safety net.
“We should all read the fine print or we’re held accountable,” Sayf said. “But I did. I thought about it. and I figured I’m not rental income. I’m like a hotel. It’s not just having someone long term where all I do is sit around and collect an income. I am actually working almost every day, or at least weekly.”
KHON2 asked the DLIR if these cases have any sort of defense.
“So PUA is very, very specific. Unlike regular unemployment insurance, PUA has no waiver provisions for overpayments, none whatsoever,” Eustaquio said. “Whereas with regular unemployment insurance, there are a lot of different provisions that allow us to either waive the overpayment depending on fault or no-fault.”
Not your fault, but still your debt.
“I’ll do what I have to do,” Sayf said. “I have no choice. But I guess as long as they’re willing to work with us, whoever owes them money at this point.”
“We’re not actively pursuing collection, notices have not been mailed out to ask claimants to pay,” Eustaquio said. “But they’re seeing it on their PUA account that they have an overpayment, so they’re getting excited. But we have lots to do besides work on collections right now.”
The state says they do not have a grand total of PUA-disqualified money they expect back. Payments have just stopped for some, others are still in determination limbo, and still others — such as those told to move to unemployment — have to beware of a double-payment pitfall because the UI system cannot simply deduct payments already made by PUA.
“So some of them, we’ve been telling them, maybe you should kind of hold on to some of that money, you know, that second bucket that we paid you so that you could pay back what you were overpaid,” Eustaquio said, “because you’re not doing both sides.”