Metro school owner told employees to pay back unemployment funds following COVID-19 furlough

Metro school owner told employees to pay back unemployment funds following COVID-19 furlough

ROSWELL, Ga. — The extra $600 a week the coronavirus relief bill provided for unemployed workers over the spring and summer helped many families pay their bills.

But a metro Atlanta employer claims he’s entitled to some of the money his employees were paid.

Like millions of Americans, the teachers and other employees of Village Montessori School in Roswell were furloughed and forced to go on unemployment this summer. But it’s when they went back to work that their story takes a strange turn.

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Village Montessori’s owner told employees to pay the school part of their unemployment benefit.

“Well, we were told is that we were, we were not allowed any more than what our contracted rate was,” former employee Cindy Jacobs said.

The owner of Village Montessori, Dr. Louis Lee, sent employees an email saying that every dollar they made more in unemployment than they would have in salary belongs to him.

The email reads, “it will be treated as a payroll advance and will be offset against a future paycheck.”

“I can’t afford to not have a paycheck. I’m not independently wealthy,” Jacobs said.

Jacobs is just one of several Village Montessori School’s current and former employees who reached out to us. She worked as a teaching assistant at the school for more than a decade.

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Jacobs says she was told over the summer that she now owed Lee thousands of dollars.

“So I personally was supposed to pay back I think was about $3,500. And so for two months, I would not have a paycheck,” Jacobs said.

In an email to another employee the business manager wrote, “you’ve received more in unemployment than your salary, so according to Louis, you will need to pay back the payroll advance.”

We showed the emails to Atlanta employment law attorney Ed Buckley.

“To take basically federal funds back from the employees is grossly inappropriate,” Buckley said.

Buckley says the federal unemployment benefit is between the government and employee, and Village Montessori is not entitled to it.

It is not a payroll advance.

“The fact that they were forced to take unemployment benefits because he laid them off, he doesn’t suddenly get to get that money back when he hires them back,” Buckley said.

We tried to reach Lee for weeks before finally showing up at the school. We also went to Lee’s newly built Milton mansion looking for him. We’re still waiting for any answers to our questions. Lee has not responded to our calls, emails or visits.

Jacobs says the only thing she could afford to do was quit.

“It’s devastating, but I did the right thing,” she said.

Other employees we talked to, who want their identities hidden out of fear of retaliation, felt they couldn’t quit.

So those school employees agreed to pay their employer from their paycheck.

“It’s like your back’s against the wall,” Jacobs said.

Buckley said he believes Village Montessori is violating the rules of the loan money that Lee accepted from the Paycheck Protection Program established by the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (or CARES) Act.

“Instead of paying the employees he’s basically taking money from them. That is not consistent with the CARES Act,” Buckley said.

We spoke to both the state and federal Departments of Labor. They say this is a federal case.

We’ve now connected the employees with Atlanta-based federal investigators to file a complaint which launches an official investigation.

DeKalb County using nearly 3 million of Federal Cares Act Funding to provide free tele-health