‘It’s humiliating’: Georgia school bus drivers told they have to repay unemployment money

GDOL said school bus drivers are generally not eligible to receive unemployment benefits if their employer gives them ‘reasonable assurance’ they will return to work when school is back in session.
Published: Jul. 20, 2022 at 1:45 PM EDT
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ATLANTA, Ga. (CBS46) - They’re responsible for transporting our most precious cargo, and there’s a shortage of them across the country.

Now, some Georgia school bus drivers who received unemployment money during the pandemic are being told they have to pay it back.

According to the Georgia Department of Labor (GDOL), that’s because they were either overpaid or received benefits to which they were not entitled.

In May, CBS46 Investigates first reported on Georgians who were being told they had to repay unemployment benefits they received during the pandemic. After that investigation aired, more Georgians reached out to CBS46 Investigates, including a handful of school bus drivers.

“There’s no two days that are the same on my bus,” Atlanta Public Schools (APS) bus driver Michelle Blue said. “We have fun.”

Blue calls her bus “the dream bus,” and her passengers “the dream crew.”

“Any young rider that gets on my bus knows it’s a special place,” she said.

It’s the same for Charlotte Brown, another APS bus driver. “I love them.” Brown calls her young riders her babies, and her face lights up when she talks about them. “My first priority is the kids,” she said.

But lately, both bus drivers have been pre-occupied, after they received letters from GDOL that said they may have received unemployment money during the pandemic for which they were not eligible, and may be required to “repay benefits already received.”

“It’s very stressful and it’s humiliating to work for them and go through this,” Brown said.

Atlanta bus drivers Charlotte Brown and Michelle Blue with passengers.
Atlanta bus drivers Charlotte Brown and Michelle Blue with passengers.(Rachel Polansky)

Both Blue and Brown applied and were approved for unemployment benefits in March 2020, when APS went virtual.

They say they’re not at fault, even if they were improperly approved for those benefits.

According to GDOL, school bus drivers are generally not eligible to receive unemployment benefits if their employer gives them “reasonable assurance” they will return to work when school is back in session.

“We are required anytime we find someone was paid benefits they weren’t supposed to get, to, to attempt to recover that money,” said Jeffrey Babcock, GDOL’s deputy general counsel. “During the pandemic, with the increased volume of claims, that also resulted in increased number of overpayments.”

A previous CBS46 investigation uncovered the state overpaid $84 million worth of unemployment benefits during the pandemic. So far, the state has recovered or gotten back $38 million. Babcock said a number of mistakes can trigger overpayment of unemployment benefits, from reporting earnings incorrectly to simple misspelling on applications.

Both Blue and Brown have filed appeals with GDOL. So has APS, which denied an interview request but in a statement, said it “avoided staff reductions, maintained healthcare coverage, and continued to pay all its employees when the district pivoted to virtual learning in March 2020 due to the COVID-19 emergency.”

For bus drivers, APS said this included their “regular full-time pay (20 hours per week), healthcare benefits, COVID-19 Hero Pay (for those who helped with meal prep and delivery), and partial unemployment benefits from the Georgia Department of Labor, which adopted an emergency rule that required APS to file partial unemployment claims on behalf of district employees who experienced a reduction in work hours due to the pandemic.”

“Throughout the pandemic, APS simultaneously took care of its employees and continued to be responsible stewards of taxpayer dollars by adhering to state and federal rules governing the distribution of unemployment benefits,” the statement concluded.

Blue and Brown said they routinely take on extra routes, and the amount they received during this time was not enough to survive.

“I go above and beyond. I do six, seven routes, and this is how they treat their employees? I don’t get it,” Brown said.

So, what happens next?

Once the appeals process is over, it’s likely the overpayment process will begin. That’s when Blue, Brown and hundreds of others like them will have another way to get off the hook by submitting an “overpayment waiver.”

Babcock said the overpayment waiver is the best option if no fraud is involved or if applicants are not at fault. “We’re doing our best to provide a solution and we believe this does provide that solution,” he said. “We look at these all on a case by case basis.”

So far, GDOL has waived $289,000 in overpayments. Babcock expects that amount will rise as more people file overpayment waivers.

If you receive a letter telling you that you received benefits you were not eligible for, CBS46 Investigates has learned there are two ways you may be able to get off the hook. File an appeal or submit an overpayment waiver.

Don’t ignore letters or notices from GDOL. That will not make them go away. They will exist like any other debt unless the claimant pays, files an appeal or submits an overpayment waiver.

If there’s something you would like CBS46 investigates to dig into, fill out this submission form.

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