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DES MOINES — Complaints to the Iowa Ombudsman about the state agency that handles unemployment claims tripled in fiscal 2021, with a large share coming from Iowans awarded unemployment benefits during the COVID-19 pandemic and then later told they had to repay the money.
“It is not an understatement to say that every caller was in a state of panic due to this turn of events,” the State Ombudsman’s Office reported Wednesday. “Some were told they had to repay $10,000 or more in benefits.”
Overall, complaints to the Ombudsman were up 9 percent in the year that ended June 30, with the largest share — 28 percent — coming from people incarcerated in Iowa’s prisons.
Other government branches with a lot of complaints filed against them were county government (20 percent), human services (9 percent), city government (9 percent), community-based corrections (5 percent) and workforce development (3.3 percent), according to a 26-page report released Wednesday.
The Ombudsman investigates complaints against agencies or officials of state or local governments in Iowa. When the office finds a “mistake, arbitrary or illegal action,” it works with agencies to fix the problems. The Ombudsman also can make recommendations to the Iowa Legislature about problems it spots.
Iowa is one of five states in the country with an Ombudsman, but former Director Kristie Hirschman, who retired in August after 26 years in the office, said she thinks the office plays an important role.
“We have the tools and the contacts and the respect of agencies to resolve problems, and I think that can go a long way,” Hirshman said in an interview included with the report.
Unemployment insurance claims spiked in March and April 2020 as the coronavirus hit Iowa, and restaurants, hotels and other businesses laid off workers. Initial claim numbers stayed above normal until about April 2021, The Gazette reported.
Most of the Iowans who called the Ombudsman for help with unemployment issues were first-time filers who said they were encouraged to apply for unemployment because their job losses were caused by the pandemic, the report said.
“Because they continued to receive benefits following weeks of claims, they had no reason to believe they did not qualify,” the report states.
In one central Iowa woman’s case, she lost her job in 2020 because her face-to-face job could no longer be done because of COVID-19. She applied for unemployment, but every month would email her supervisors asking when she could return to work, the Ombudsman reported.
“Despite her diligence, she eventually received a notice to repay over $7,200 in unemployment benefits because she purportedly had ‘not been available for work,’” the report said. ”Based on what the woman had told us, we believed there was merit to her complaint. After a review of the details, the agency agreed with us.“
Now that unemployment claims have dropped, complaints to the Ombudsman’s office on this topic have slowed.
The Ombudsman received 1,759 complaints or information requests from state prisoners and another 920 from people in county jails.
The complaints were wide ranging, with investigators noting situations in which a prisoner’s release date was inaccurate, a relative with a 20-year-old criminal record was not allowed to visit and an offender at a county jail was not getting his medication. Another prisoner’s release was stalled because of a false positive of drugs on his incoming mail, the report states.
The Ombudsman received 216 complaints about Medicaid and managed care during fiscal 2021. Of those, 124 were investigated and 21 were substantiated or partially substantiated, the office reported.
Other human services complaints involved placement of foster children and child sex abuse investigations.
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