A candidate for the Massachusetts Attorney General's office and consumer advocates are calling for a halt to a new state program that uses automated calls to collect undeserved unemployment benefits.
The state began using the automated telephone messages - commonly known as "robocalls" - on July 28, calling an estimated 1,000 people a day. Approximately 63,000 people reportedly have received overpayments to unemployment benefits and are on the call list.
Maura Healey, a candidate for attorney general, said the robocall tactics are too aggressive. She would shut down the collection program immediately if elected, she said. Ignoring the calls could lead to a loss of future unemployment benefits or garnishment of tax refunds.
Healey, a former civil rights attorney and consumer protection advocate in the office of Attorney General Martha Coakley, who is running for governor, told the Boston Globe she is troubled that the AG's office, which has battled predatory debt collectors for years, is now faced with the state government using the same approach.
State labor department officials defend the collection strategy. Nearly 300 people have set up repayment plans to pay back an estimated $70,000, department officials said. The state has recouped another $400,000 since the robocalls started less than a month ago and reportedly could recover at least $157 million through the program.
The state is pursuing overpayments from people dating back as far as 1985. According to internal emails the newspaper obtained, the average amount of the debt the state is seeking to reclaim is about $2,500 a person. In some cases as little as $100 is owed.
The robocall collection program started after the state unsuccessfully tried to recover the money by sending letters. The calls cost 10 cents each for a total of $6,300 and were paid for with $100,000 in federal funds made available under a larger national effort to collect overpayments of unemployment benefits.
Labor department officials said most of the people contacted were notified previously with a monthly bill and that they are working hard to ensure all claimants are "afforded due process in recouping overpayments."
Michael J. Widmer, president of Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation, learned about the robocall strategy after it became public this week.
Widmer, who also sits on the Department of Unemployment Assistance advisory board, believes the robocall tactics are fair if most people indeed were previously notified that they owed the repayment and the calls follow a process of many years attempting to collect.
State officials said 229 people have requested a waiver forgiving repayment since the robocall program began but Peter Benjamin, litigation director for Community Legal Aid, which offers free legal services in parts of the state, criticized the robocalls for not pointing out the waiver option. He supports shutting down the program and has stated he believes the state should hold itself to a "little higher standard than a collection agency."