Our Opinion: Wrong use of robocalls by state department


Massachusetts is bringing out the heavy artillery -- automatic telephone messages known as "robocalls" -- to collect overpayments of unemployment benefits to state residents. That arguably constitutes cruel and unusual punishment, especially considering that many or most of those who received the overpayments are not guilty of any crimes.

The program came to light when The Boston Globe obtained internal emails from the state Department of Unemployment Assistance. State officials maintain the calls will help collect unpaid debts. The message tells the recipients that failure to repay the overpayments could jeopardize future unemployment insurance payments and impact state and federal income tax returns, most likely through the garnishment process.

This effort could be justified if the state was dealing with scofflaws, but it appears to be triggered by the glitch-plagued roll-out of a new online benefits system of a year ago. Benefits were delayed, according to testimony before the Senate Committee on Post Audit and Oversight, and some residents received letters erroneously telling them that they owed money.

Robocalls, which residents will be afflicted with as the state election campaign heats up, should be used in moderation and for proper causes. State government should not be in the business of making them, especially, as appears to be the case here, in pursuit of money that residents did not steal but were given because of a dysfunctional computer system. Peter Benjamin, litigation director for Community Legal Aid, which provides free legal services for residents of Western and Central Massachusetts, told The Globe that the robocall fails to mention that claimants have the right to request a waiver forgiving them from making repayments.

The state is already sending letters to those who received overpayments. It should call off the robocalls.


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