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'It's been a slap in the face really': Thousands of Arizona residents asked to pay back unemployment received during pandemic

Thousands of Arizonans originally approved for unemployment during the pandemic are now being forced to pay it back.

PHOENIX — Thousands of people who received unemployment during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic are now being asked to pay that money back.

The Arizona Department of Economic Security went through tens of thousands of approved cases, only to find some accounts that never should've qualified. Some also may have received too much. 

One woman who spoke with 12News said she now faces a bill that she can't afford.

"It's been a slap in the face really," she said.

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For Delci, who wanted to only go by her nickname, the past several months have been hard.

"It's not my fault they made a mistake," she said. "I'm worried they're going to come knocking on my door because I can't afford to pay this."

During the pandemic, Delci couldn't work so she filed for unemployment. She started getting her weekly payments, but that stopped about a year ago. Recently, she got a piece of mail stating that she now owes money and a lot of it.

"I got this account that I owe $14,000," she said. "I had no idea what was going on."

From January to June, the Department of Economic Security said they found 27,000 Arizonans who were "overpaid" more than $121 million in benefits. That means they were told they qualified, got paid but then were told they shouldn't have been approved in the first place. 

"We needed the money at the time," she said. "I wasn't working, I wasn't able to work. Literally, my daughter had to be home from school because she's had medical conditions her whole life. Now it's showing that was not a valid reason."

To make matters worse, she said her account was also flagged as 'fraud.' Confused as to why she said she can't get ahold of anyone at DES for answers.

"I've called several times and left messages," she said. "I'm sure there's people out there abusing the system, but the mass majority of people that have the issue are genuinely needing it and now they're getting this and saying oh just kidding, we're going to take that back we messed up, that's not fair."

Delci is now taking it one day at a time and said she's not sure what to do next, but is hopeful, a resolution will soon be found.

DES declined 12News' requests for an interview but said in an e-mail they've worked hard to prevent fraud but still paid well over $100 million in suspected fraudulent claims. They also said they'll work with people to "minimize the impact of overpayments whenever possible."

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