Unemployment payback: Auditors look into Nebraska labor department practices

State auditors are taking another look at the books and practices of the Nebraska Department of Labor during the pandemic.
Published: Apr. 28, 2021 at 9:19 PM CDT
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OMAHA, Neb. (WOWT) - State auditors are taking another look at the books and practices of the Nebraska Department of Labor during the pandemic.

The labor department has come under fire after a series of stories on 6 News pointing out a number of cases where out-of-work men and women who collected unemployment benefits are now being asked to pay it back.

In the first NDOL audit, conducted in December, auditors were critical of those signing off on unemployment claims. In one case, a handful of inmates were getting unemployment. In another, someone was getting unemployment using the same name as a state auditor.

The labor department’s defense: Federal rules were constantly being changed, and that in a crisis, sometimes you have to move fast — but that rules were still being followed.

Lynette Berg is frustrated: “I’m clearly without a net.”

At the height of the pandemic, as thousands of people were dying in hospitals around the country, she said she told her Omaha employer that she wasn’t quitting, but that she didn’t feel safe working alongside others in her IT job — especially since she has lung issues.

So she went on unemployment. Months later, she said, “they went back and decided everything I had received — that I didn’t deserve any of it.”

NDOL asked for $13,000 back. As part of the repayment plan, the state kept her income tax refund.

There’s no question: Unprecedented numbers of people filed for unemployment in Nebraska last year. A month into the pandemic, 82,000 Nebraskans had filed for unemployment — twice as many than all of those who filed in 2019.

And the numbers kept growing.

The labor department’s system and manpower just couldn’t handle the demand. Officials at the top told state auditors it was critical to the economy to ensure payment was made in a timely manner. State auditors said more should have been done to prevent fraud along the way, rather than trying to put the toothpaste back in the tube and collect money already paid.

“There’s no fraud here,” Berg said. She said she feels like she’s been pulled into a dragnet as the state tries to recoup money it believes wasn’t deserved — and that she’ll be put in a category where, if she fell on hard times, she couldn’t get unemployment again.

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