Local News

Perdue: 'Ludicrous' situation could lead to changes at ESC

Posted October 4, 2010 10:14 a.m. EDT
Updated October 15, 2010 4:31 p.m. EDT

Employment Security Commission building

— Gov. Beverly Perdue said Monday that she will send a team of computer experts to the state Employment Security Commission this week to sort out problems plaguing the agency.

Perdue said she is frustrated with the ESC's management and might consider changes at the agency.

"I've got to fix the system. I've got to fix the leadership team to be sure we have people in place who can do what they need to do," she said. "I'm not at all reluctant to ask somebody to leave my administration if I think it's best for the people of North Carolina."

Last week, the governor ordered the ESC to stop docking unemployed North Carolina residents for jobless benefits that they mistakenly received this year and to waive repayment of the $28 million that was improperly paid.

A computer programming error led to overpayments to about 38,000 people receiving a second year of benefits, according to ESC officials. The mistakes started with checks issued in January, and they continued after an internal audit caught the problem in mid-May.

The agency recently began sending letters to people to inform them of the errors and to detail how much they might owe. ESC Deputy Chairman David Clegg said many of the people receiving letters would end up owing nothing, and about 15 percent were underpaid and would be eligible to receive more money.

"How can I trust the amounts I've overpaid are supposedly correct," said Olivia Jacob, who received four letters in the past week with varying amounts that she reportedly owed the state.

"The first thing I did was just cry," Jacob said.

Other unemployed residents were incensed when the ESC began cutting their weekly benefit checks in half to recoup the money mistakenly paid out earlier.

"This has been very irritating to me, very troublesome," Perdue said. "It was absurd the ESC leadership would ask for folks to repay money that had been wrongfully sent to them.

"I'm going to find out why something so ludicrous happened."

ESC spokesman Larry Parker issued a statement late Monday, saying that the agency looked forward to working with the outside IT experts.

"The ESC continues to assist those affected by the overpayment error. We've corrected this problem so it can't happen again," Parker said.

ESC Chairwoman Lynn Holmes said that the agency is trying to determine how to refund people who already had money deducted from their checks.

The agency also needs to work with the U.S. Department of Labor to find a way to repay the $28 million.

Holmes has acknowledged the ESC didn't handle the overpayment issue well and needed to communicate better with unemployed people.

Numerous job-seekers have said their benefits are based on confusing formulas, and they can't get through to the ESC either by phone or by e-mail.

Jacob said she finally spoke to someone at the agency this weekend.

"Their customer service level is horrible. They are not sympathetic at all," she said.

The agency has extended the hours of its phone lines to 8 p.m. on weekdays and from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. on weekends to answer questions. The agency can be reached toll-free at 888-737-0259. Answers to common questions also are posted on the ESC website.