MIAMI (CBSMiami/AP) – Florida is trying to claw back possibly billions of dollars in non-fraudulent unemployment claims distributed during the first 18 months of the pandemic.

Thousands of Floridians have received stern letters warning them that they face being sent to collections if they don’t reimburse the state.

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So how many unemployment recipients, through no fault of their own, must now pay back previous “overpaid” benefits? The state doesn’t know.

“It’s been a constant stress for so many Floridians,” said state Rep. Anna Eskamani, D-Orlando, who has helped tens of thousands of Floridians with their unemployment claims.

The latest overpayment notices are arriving after federal unemployment benefits ended last month. They reflect the continuous chaos and disarray hampering the state’s jobless agency. From the pandemic’s outset, the agency has struggled to pay timely and accurate claims for millions of Floridians who lost their jobs. Some overpayment notices were mailed out after the deadline for recipients to appeal them. Calls to the state’s hotline go unanswered or unreturned. Appealing the letters can take months.

The overpayments are a headache for the state as well, and the Department of Economic Opportunity has suspended referring the cases to collections through the end of 2022.

“The Department recognizes the highly frustrating issues overpayments cause, and we are actively working to alleviate the challenges being experienced by claimants,” department spokesperson Emilie Oglesby said in a statement.

Just how much the state has sent in overpayments is still unknown. The Department of Economic Opportunity has not said how many people have been overpaid, by how much, or how much it’s recouped from Floridians. (Earlier this year, state auditors found the department’s data was such a mess that they couldn’t verify how much the state has paid out in jobless benefits during the pandemic.)

The amount could be in the billions of dollars. U.S. Department of Labor data estimates that out of nearly $2 billion in a sample of state benefits paid out during the first year of the pandemic, $788 million were overpayments. (The state has paid out more than $31 billion in state and federal benefits since March 2020.)

That works out to a 40% overpayment rate, according to the federal data. That would be the third-highest overpayment rate of any state, although the Labor Department cautions that the data is too unreliable to do a state-to-state comparison. A Florida Department of Economic Opportunity spokesperson did not dispute the data.

Some of the reasons for the overpayments are because of Florida’s shambolic response to the pandemic. The demand for unemployment benefits was so great that it crushed the state’s already-troubled online unemployment system. In a scramble to get payments to Floridians, the department automatically sent money out without verifying the exact dates the recipient was eligible.

Such inexactitude required recipients, months later, to go back and clarify the weeks they were eligible; if they didn’t do it in time, they might have been hit with an overpayment notice.

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But changing federal guidelines requiring unemployment recipients to submit their employment records multiple times also triggered some overpayments.

When Congress extended pandemic unemployment benefits last year, it added a provision requiring states to ask recipients for employment records showing they were eligible for benefits. If recipients didn’t submit the records in time, they were told to repay the money.

Zoe Martin, 39, of DeLand, got an overpayment notice last year that required her to submit documents showing she’d lost her job because of the pandemic. Then, two months ago, she received another notice stating that she owes about $18,000 unless she resubmitted those records. Except this time, she can’t find those records.

“It’s just one hurdle after another,” she said. “Now we have to go back and feel like we’re in trouble.”

Overpayment notices have created other problems for recipients: once they get one, it can block them from claiming additional benefits.

That’s what Silvania Richard, 26, of Orlando, said happened to her. She attended Valencia College for a warehouse logistics program and did a brief internship in May. Unbeknownst to her, the internship paid her, which she said triggered an overpayment notice from the state when she claimed benefits. She said she’s been unable to claim benefits since, and unable to reach someone for help.

“It still says they’re waiting for adjudication from the overpayment,” Richard said.

The U.S. Department of Labor did throw a lifeline to alleviate what it called the “widespread overpayments in benefits”: it allowed recipients keep the money if the overpayment wasn’t their fault.

“Amid the pandemic, state unemployment insurance programs did the best they could in the face of unprecedented demand as millions of Americans filed claims for benefits,” Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Employment and Training Suzi LeVine said in May. “That demand, coupled with systems stretched beyond their capacity, led to widespread overpayments in benefits.”

As of Sep. 29, 168,862 federal waivers had been requested in Florida, and 96,314 were granted, according to the Department of Economic Opportunity. The rest were either denied or are still waiting to be approved.

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CBSMiami.com Team