HUNTLEY – Jim Zielinski had gone from earning a full-time salary as an automotive technician for 30 years to scrounging for income after being laid off in 2008 during the height of the economic recession.
The pain of losing his livelihood worsened in March 2012, when the Huntley resident received a notice, complete with an erroneous name, that he owed the Illinois Department of Human Services $4,000 in overcharges made to his LINK card.
He received the government assistance nearly two years earlier to help pay for food for his wife and two sons under the federal government’s Supplement Nutrition Assistance Program.
He said that the communication barriers and bureaucratic incompetency he has encountered since with trying to rectify the overcharges have pinned him into a financial corner.
“I’m asking for help. I gave the proper information and the copies of my wife’s paycheck, and they want me to be held accountable,” Zielinski said.
Zielinski started receiving payments – a $489 installment – on his government-issued LINK Card meant to help poor families pay for healthy food in November 2010.
Nearly two years later in March 2012, he received notice from DHS that he would have to pay $4,000 in overcharges made to his LINK card from November 2010 to October 2011 for failing to accurately report his wife “Barbara’s income.” Zielinski’s wife’s name is Beverly.
Zielinski reported on the SNAP application that the family relied on the sole income of his wife, Beverly, a local school bus driver who earned roughly $1,800 a month during the school year.
“This is a bunch of malarkey and who is Barbara? Where does she come? I don’t know. I just don’t know anymore. Nobody wants to help me,” Zielinski said.
DHS uses Social Security numbers to verify identities and incomes before issuing SNAP benefits to LINK Cards and even allows individuals a chance to appeal DHS decisions, DHS spokeswoman Januari Smith said.
The department, she said, has records that show Zielinski withdrew an overcharge appeal in April 2012 in a meeting that Zielinski argued never resulted in a withdrawal.
The “Barbara” error on the overcharge notice was a mistake made by an “overworked caseworker,” Smith said. The notice still was sent to the correct family, since DHS used the correct Social Security number of Beverly, Zielinski’s real wife, to verify the application.
“I’m certainly not sticking up for this person, but many of our caseworkers have hundreds upon hundreds of cases they work on at a given time. ... It’s an honest mistake. Unfortunate yes, but it happens,” Smith said.
In Zielinski’s case, DHS found that the four-person household was collecting a monthly income of $3,800, exceeding the $2,498 maximum allowable monthly income for a family of four to be eligible for SNAP benefits.
Smith could not confirm whether the higher monthly income corresponded with the one-year timeframe detailed in the March 2012 overcharge notice.
Since that notice, Zielinski found work in May 2012 as a cashier, earning minimum wage. He said he applied for SNAP benefits later in 2012 but was denied because DHS found that the family’s income was too high.
DHS is adamant that Zielinski reported his wife’s income incorrectly and has referred the matter to a collection agency to ensure that the state receives the $4,000 in overcharges, Smith said without specifying the error.
“We discovered that the family initially failed to report income and later under-reported income,” Smith said. “The state takes abuse and fraud of public assistance very seriously and is in the process of recouping this overpayment.”
Zielinski did travel to the DHS Family Community Resource Center in Woodstock in April 2012 to initiate an appeal, he said. He couldn’t understand why the overcharge notice listed such varying amounts that DHS said he should have been owed.
According to the March 2012 notice, Zielinski received anywhere between $668 and $424 a month in SNAP benefits from November 2010 to October 2011. The corrected amounts range throughout the year, from $167 for November 2010 to $0 for August 2011
Zielinski even received monthly notices throughout 2010-11 that alerted him of payment changes. In July 2011, he received notice that his benefits would be reduced to $424, only to be informed in the March overcharge notice that the correct amount should have been $333.
With this information in hand, Zielinski left his April appeal meeting with the Family Community Resource Center dejected. He said a caseworker there told him that the office did not have time to hear the appeal and that he owed the money regardless of whether DHS made an error.
Repeated calls for comment to Family Community Resource Center manager Kim Curran were never returned.
Since the April meeting, Zielinski has tried to file an appeal with a DHS state hotline that only leads to automated messages, and he has tried to work with the collection agency, who refers him back to DHS, he said.
He needs to be proven that DHS did not make erroneous calculations before he will pay the $4,000 in overcharges that he said his family still can’t afford.
“I don’t know where to go,” Zielinski said. “Why should you take money away from me when you didn’t give me a fair appeal?”