Mississippi Casino Workers Ordered to Repay COVID-19 Unemployment
Posted on: January 16, 2022, 09:43h.
Last updated on: January 16, 2022, 11:06h.
Mississippi casino employees who were temporarily laid off or saw their hours reduced during the height of the pandemic – and collected state unemployment – are now being told to repay some of that compensation.
The Mississippi Department of Employment Security (MDES) recently sent letters to state residents who are believed to have wrongly received more unemployment benefits than they should have collected. The state argues that many casino workers didn’t properly report their gross earnings, which led to improper payments.
MDES contends that while employees might have informed the state of their work hours for the week, they failed to report their tips. Susan Varnes, general manager of the Treasure Bay Casino and Hotel in Biloxi, says the state should work with the gaming industry to remedy the matter.
“This is a very complicated situation that affects tipped employees industry-wide,” Varnes told the Sun Herald. “What first needs to be understood is that the majority of individuals on our team who filed for unemployment had never filed for unemployment benefits in the past, and the process was very confusing for them.”
More than 45,000 workers in Mississippi filed for unemployment during the first two months of the pandemic in March and April of 2020. Mississippi casinos were forced to fully shutter their operations during those two months.
Mississippi is home to 26 commercial casinos. According to the Mississippi Gaming Commission, the properties collectively employed 13,276 people at the end of November 2021. The majority of those workers filed state unemployment claims at some point during the pandemic.
The MDES letter to casino employees who allegedly received unwarranted compensation claims the recipients committed fraudulent acts. The state is demanding that those who received overcompensation repay the money, plus a 20 percent penalty.
Varnes argues that casino workers did nothing wrong, but simply completed their unemployment filings after their work weeks without the ability to properly project the number of tips that they received. That’s due to most workers receiving the majority of their tips on their paystubs, because many gratuities are applied on credit and debit card transactions.
Individuals were required to report earnings on Sunday nights to MDES and may have reported their base wages only because they did not know until the following week what their tip wages were,” Varnes said. “If a tipped individual is audited week to week, the amounts will most certainly not align.”
Varnes added that she hopes MDES will be understanding regarding the discrepancies and forego the penalty for those who must return unemployment money.
An audit conducted by Mississippi State Auditor Shad White’s office concluded that MDES wrongly paid $118 million in unemployment benefits in 2020 alone.
In the letter to those who allegedly received more than they should have, MDES says the recipients have 60 days to repay the full amount. Those who cannot afford to do so can arrange a payment schedule with a minimum of $150 per month, plus a one percent interest added on to remaining balances.
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