Back in 1976, when Alice Mainville received an unemployment check from the state of New Jersey, she remembers feeling elated.
She was 17 and had been working in a bakery, but when one union went on a strike, hers refused to cross the picket line. She was out of work for a few weeks and was eligible to file for unemployment.
Never did she think that 35 years later, long after she had moved to Massachusetts to start a new life, that New Jersey would track her down for a $73 debt, the result of a miscalculation in her unemployment check.
“You’ve got to be kidding me,” Mainville said in an interview. “They’re coming after me for $73, after 36 years, for a debt I incurred at 17?”
She first received the notice from the New Jersey Department of Labor last fall telling her that, she owes the state $73 due to the state’s miscalculation.
The notice was addressed to her using her maiden name, Alice Scheller, a last name she had not used in twelve years.
Mainville initially thought that the letter was for her mother, who had passed away five years ago and had lived her life in New Jersey, as there was no social security number listed on the notice.
She replied with her mother’s death certificate. Then in March, she received another notice that included her Social Security number, ostensibly proving that the debt was indeed in her name.
Back in the 1970s, Mainville recalls, she could fill up her car’s entire gas tank for just $5. She was earning about $80 a week.
In 1976, Mainville had been working in Paterson, N.J., in a union job at Lazzara bakery. When another union, the Teamsters, which also had members employed at the bakery, went on strike, Mainville said she and her fellow union members were told not to cross the picket line. Out of work for a time, she was eligible to claim unemployment. It was then that the state allegedly overpaid her, but Mainville said she never had any idea there was a problem until the recent notices started coming.
According to Brian Murray, spokesman for the New Jersey Department of Labor, Mainville’s case is hardly unprecedented. The state of New Jersey is owed $376 million in debts from people who were overpaid unemployment insurance benefits and now owe repayments and penalties.
There is no expiration date for debts like this. The department is “obligated, under the law, to follow up on these matters, regardless of the amount of the debt or the age of the case,” Murray said.
A spokesperson for New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie agreed. “She had a debt and went off the radar. Her debt doesn’t go away and there’s no provision in the law for it to be dismissed,” said Mike Drewniak.
Murray couldn’t say exactly why Mainville received the notices only now, so many years after the fact, but he suspects that the department’s automated computer system identified her Social Security number during a routine check of outstanding debts.
Murray explained that the system will routinely send a notice to a debtor indicating the amount owed. If the notice is returned as undeliverable, the system notes the bad address and no new notices are generated until the computer finds a valid address. The Department of Labor’s computer system likely identified a new address for Mainville, which prompted the recent notices.
Though Murray does not believe that a paltry debt of $73 will affect her credit score, he says that if she refuses to pay, the debt will remain active, though it will not accrue any interest.
But for the single mother of three and a secretary at a school in her Amesbury town, Mainville finds it hard to believe that New Jersey couldn’t find her sooner.
“If I could find my elementary school classmates, I’m surprised the state of New Jersey couldn’t find me,” she said.
Ultimately, Mainville says she’ll pay back the $73, but only after checking to ensure that the notice is legitimate and factual. Only the balance of the over-payment was provided; no additional information was given. She said that she would love to contact the Department of Labor and get more information but that there was no email address or phone number listed on the notice.
Murray says that if she gives him a call, he’ll be happy to help out.