The Georgia Department of Labor says it has determined an Atlanta food company, Rocket Farm Restaurants, made a series of errors in filing unemployment insurance claim documents regarding its employees with the state. However, the department is not looking to hold the employer responsible for the error. The state is demanding direct repayment of unemployment benefits from current and former workers for Rocket Farm.
Rocket Farm operates 11 restaurants in the metro Atlanta area. The labor department has told Kacey Carelson, who used to work for the firm, that she must repay almost $28,000 she received as unemployment benefits. She told reporters that she could not live if she had to pay back that amount, which was half of her annual salary.
State Department of Labor spokesperson Kersha Cartwright said that errors on forms could lead to “unintentional fraud,” leading to an overpayment. She cited mistakes like misspellings and the incorrect entry of numbers on forms as examples of unintentional “fraud.” Cartwright did not disclose the total overpayment the state was demanding to be returned by employees of Rocket Farm. She also declined to describe the nature of mistakes made that led to what she described as “unintentional fraud.”
Cartwright said that unintentional fraud does not often happen in the department. Because the department is in charge of state and federal funds, she said that it must recoup payments made to “the wrong person.”
At the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the state required that unemployment claim forms be filed directly by employers. With the wave of claims, the department said it was attempting to speed up benefit payments to workers. Cartwright said that the state was trying to resolve repayment issues with employers and workers and added that there is a process for employees to file a claim for a repayment waiver.
Carelson has left her employment with Rocket Farm and is now working with a different restaurant group. She said that she has filed several appeals and claims for waivers but has yet to receive a response from the state and added that Rocket Farm is doing little to communicate with former employees on the situation.
She said that she is losing sleep and feeling panicked about what will happen if she has to repay the benefits and is concerned about threats of wage garnishment and whether she could be prosecuted for fraud.
Rocket Farm said that it remains committed to helping employees by correcting any inaccurate information.
Whether that means anything to workers who may be saddled with garnishments because of bureaucratic incompetence remains to be seen.