RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) -- A state agency is telling thousands of long-term unemployed people they may have to refund some of their jobless benefits because they were mistakenly overpaid.
The Employment Security Commission made about $28 million in overpayments to jobless North Carolinians over the last two years, The News & Observer of Raleigh reported Tuesday.
The ESC last week began sending letters to about 38,000 people who it said were either overpaid or underpaid through no fault of their own. About 15 percent of recipients were underpaid and will be eligible for additional benefits, the agency estimated. Others could apply for a waiver and avoid repayment.
The improper payments are the result of the ESC pulling compensation checks from the wrong funding sources and thus overdrawing some accounts, not the result of incorrectly calculating individuals' benefits, spokesman Larry Parker said.
He was unable to explain why the accounting problems could result in some people owing the state money.
"It's really very hard to explain," Parker said. "It gets really tricky just because of how the program evolved since July of 2008."
Since July 2008, the federal government has approved a series of unemployment benefit extensions. North Carolina has qualified for an additional extension because of its high unemployment rate.
Recipients receiving letters have received unemployment benefits for a year or longer. Each recipient was being mailed between one and six letters depending on the number of times their benefits have been extended.
Nikki Winterholler, 35, of Raleigh, has received two letters since Saturday. The first said she was overpaid $390 for the period April 24 to May 29. The second said she owed $569 for the period from March 6 to April 17.
Winterholler said she has tried fruitlessly to make sense of the numbers. She just found a job after 18 months of unemployment and stopped collecting benefits Aug. 1.
"Now I've got these people, who are supposed to help us, wanting more money back," Winterholler said. "It's like, 'What on earth?"'
Winterholler plans to apply to the agency for a waiver to have the overpayment forgiven. The waiver deadline is Oct. 8.
"If their waiver's not approved they would have to owe money back," Parker said. "But we don't know how many that's going to be."
Winterholler said the ESC's handling of the issue made her wonder whether the agency has been swamped by the state's nearly 438,000 unemployed people.
"It think they are so overwhelmed over there that they don't know what's going on," she said.