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'These are frantic calls' | NCDES sends out some notices to pay back all unemployment benefits received since COVID-19 hit

Greensboro attorney Seth Cohen said his firm gets calls almost daily from people in the Triad trying to fight repayment.

GREENSBORO, N.C. — UPDATE: Renee Skudra's attorney said the NCDES reversed its 'redetermination' and she no longer has to pay back the nearly $23,000.

Last week, we introduced you to a Greensboro substitute teacher who's been collecting unemployment for more than a year now. That is, until she got a letter from the North Carolina Division of Employment Security (NCDES) saying she needs to pay it all back. 

The total Renee Skudra owes? Nearly $23,000. 

The story resonated with many of you who got a similar letter from the NCDES. 

"What's disturbing is that these notices of overpayment are coming anywhere from six months to more than a year after the payments have been made," Seth Cohen said.

RELATED: NCDES asks Guilford County substitute teacher to pay back nearly $23,000 because schools never closed

Cohen is an attorney at Dueterman Law Group in Greensboro. He's representing Skudra. 

He said he's seen a major spike in calls recently from Triad residents who want to appeal these 'overpayment' and 'redetermination' decisions.

"These calls are frantic calls," Cohen explained. "These are calls from people who have not been able to work and are now told they owe $15,000, $17,000, even $20,000 dollars and they still don't have a job, and they don't have the money and it's frightening for them."

Credit: Renee Skudra

Cohen said he gets calls almost daily for overpayment representation now.

"I've been practicing employment law in the Greensboro area for more than 25 years and I could count on one hand how many overpayment cases I got during that time. But since COVID-19, they really exploded."

In Skudra's case, the DES wrote this reason for the reversal of its previous decision 13 months later:

Your place of employment was not closed as a direct result of the COVID-19 public health emergency. Therefore, you are not eligible for PUA benefits under The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES Act of 2020). 

"A year later they had what's called a 'redetermination' and they decided no the schools, your employer didn’t close," Cohen said of the NCDES letter. "Well Guilford County Schools was open but opened remotely, the school buildings were closed."

Cohen said he's confident they'll win at the hearing. 

RELATED: North Carolina has given out $10 billion in unemployment benefits during the pandemic

"Prior to COVID-19 Ms. Skudra would get several calls a week to go in to teach," he said. "Since the middle of March 2020 she didn’t get any calls until the last 3 weeks or so when schools started to open up more in Guilford County."

What can you do if you get one of these overpayment notices and believe it's unjust? First step: appeal.

"One way is to challenge the underlying determination that you are not eligible for benefits," Cohen explained. "So that’s a benefits appeal you’re saying they made a mistake, you are eligible for benefits."

If you lose the appeal, your last ditch effort is a waiver.

"If you lose that appeal you can ask for a waiver as long as it is not fraudulent. If it has been determined by a hearing there’s been fraud which means someone has intentionally misrepresented then you cannot."

Cohen clarified that if a person is receiving Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA), which is a federal unemployment program created under the CARES Act, they cannot ask for waiver of an overpayment under North Carolina’s unemployment waiver provision. 

If you are getting regular North Carolina unemployment, you can ask for a waiver, but not for PUA payments. 

If you received an overpayment notice, the NCDES gives you several weeks to appeal.