Baker School District employees can add their names to the long list of Oregonians who believe they’ve been mistreated by the state’s beleaguered Employment Department.
But rather than having to wait for their benefits as thousands of others have had to do, the school employees got their money, but now the state wants some of it back.
The Employment Department says about 155 District employees who were furloughed and participated in its Work Share program were paid about $100,000 in benefits to which they were not entitled.
Witty said the overpayments, which are from a single week, the last week of May, range from $630 to $730 per employee.
However, District officials learned late Thursday that affected employees might end up having to repay only a relatively small portion of the benefit, ranging from about $30 to $139 depending on the employee, that came from the state rather than from federal COVID-19 aid.
The information about the smaller repayment came from the Baker Education Association, which represents teachers, said Michelle Glover, the District’s business manager.
Glover said District officials, who believe the overpayment resulted from ambiguous instructions on a state-provided form, are advocating for the state to not punish employees.
The situation affects teachers and other employees who work during the school year but not year-round, Glover said.
To ensure employees qualified for Oregon’s Work Share program, the District reduced their pay by the equivalent of one work day per week during May, equating to 25% given the usual 4-day school week.
While the state probably won’t seek immediate repayment, the employees could be required to repay the money before collecting any future unemployment benefits, Witty said.
In an email to the Herald, Witty wrote that the amount overpaid would be considered a balanced owed to the state, and that amount would be deducted from any future unemployment benefits to which district employees are entitled.
“It was a glitch in the way the contract is built and the way Work Share was put into law,” he said.
Here’s the glitch: For the week of Memorial Day, the employees’ work week totaled 44 hours under their contracts — 36 hours of instruction time and eight hours of holiday pay, according to the email from Witty.
The Work Share program, however, does not pay benefits to employees who work more than 40 hours per week, the District learned when notified by the Employment Department on Aug. 25.
That information was not included on any forms or communication provided earlier to the District, Witty said.
“If we’d have known we wouldn’t have applied for that week,” he said.
The employer instructions for the weekly benefits includes this sentence: “Please indicate the employee’s customary work week (if other than 40 hours).”
In the email, Witty wrote that district officials, based on that instruction, weren’t aware that the customary work week couldn’t exceed 40 hours.
And although he says he recognizes the Employment Department has been swamped with a heavy workload and an unusually high volume of cases to handle during the pandemic, Witty faults the department for paying the claims in the first place.
“They accepted it and paid it,” Witty said. “I wish they would have caught it right at the gate. That would have been great.”
Witty said the District will continue to advocate for a resolution to the problem for the benefit of its employees.
“I wish they would own the mistake and drive on, as opposed to trying to collect the money from people who’ve already spent it, essentially,” he said. “I am hopeful that in the next few days we can get it resolved and move on, but there are no guarantees.”
Although the employees’ work week was reduced by 25% in May, they did not suffer pay cuts because they became eligible for not only weekly state Work Share benefits, but also the weekly federal benefits included in the coronavirus relief bill.
The District expects to save about $300,000 through its participation in the Work Share plan, and would push that savings into the next biennium when school budgets are expect to face heavy cuts because of declining state revenue resulting from the current recession,Witty said.
Jayson Jacoby of the Baker City Herald contributed to this story.