Over the past few years Ahwatukee Foothills resident Danielle Thomas was struggling with money, with her faith in humanity and with her faith in God. It took the kindness of strangers to restore it all.
While working her usual shift at Ruffinos in Ahwatukee, Thomas was given a $1,000 tip.
Her trouble began years ago when her son got sick and she had to quit her full-time job to better take care of him. That decision meant a $25,000 pay cut and some big life changes.
“You’re talking about a woman who goes from paying bills, credit score upper 700s, everything on time, never late to barely able to adjust to that lifestyle and keep a roof over our heads,” she said.
The changes overwhelmed her and she had a nervous breakdown at the beginning of 2012 that sent her to the hospital and led to losing her job.
To help pay her medical bills and keep food on the table, she reached out to the Department of Economic Security for help and was granted unemployment benefits and the maximum amount of nutritional assistance.
The following month, Thomas said she got a job and notified DES. Months later she picked up another part-time position and notified the department again.
She was completely caught off guard when she went to renew her benefits and was told she had received an overpayment that would need to be paid back.
“I thought, ‘This is clearly a mistake because I’ve notified you guys of the changes,’” she said. “I soon began getting letters from DES wanting all my paycheck stubs, which I gladly provided. Then the letter came back that said there was an overpayment of $973 because the agency failed to go off of the information you provided. It bluntly said, ‘We failed to update your case.’”
The Federal Code of Regulations, Title 7 CFR 273.18, Claims Against Households, holds individuals responsible for repayment — even if it was the agency that made the mistake. Finding that out lit a fire inside Thomas. She began contacting every elected official she could to fight the policy.
“This is a problem,” she said. “(DES) holds us fully responsible for all our mistakes and errors, but you hold yourself accountable for nothing? You have individuals such as myself going to the state for help and this is causing further financial hardship. How am I supposed to come up with that money?”
After 14 months of fighting, Thomas was getting nowhere. One night, while working as a server, she got to talking with a couple at one of her tables.
“We were talking about taxes and money, politics, the government, you name it,” she said. “The wife said something to me like, ‘Nobody wants to be held accountable anymore.’ Boy, that struck a cord with me.”
Thomas told the couple her story and shared her annoyance with the government for not holding themselves accountable for their own mistake. That’s when the couple did something Thomas never saw coming. They took out a credit card and gave her a $1,000 tip. It’s just enough money to pay off her debt to DES and let the issue go.
“I said, ‘Do you know how hard it’s going to be for me to write that check and send it in when I know I did nothing wrong?’” She just said, ‘Danielle, you send that check in and you just be done with it,’” Thomas said. “At that moment, I felt God’s love… You get to a point in your life when you think when is something going to show that you are here or that things are OK? It was at that moment when I thought, ‘How big is my God? That big.’”
Thomas is going back to school for criminal justice and social work. She wrote a paper on government errors resulting in overpayments, which she has sent out to all of her elected officials. At this point she plans to put the issue behind her, knowing she has done all she can.
“Sometimes you get dealt a deck of cards that you clearly don’t see coming, but you do the absolute best you can,” she said. “This has been extremely frustrating… It really feels great to be done. This is one less thing for me to worry about. It’s huge.”
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