JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — Thousands of Missourians were overpaid unemployment benefits during the pandemic and now they are stuck paying some of them back.
In the first three months of the pandemic around 600,000 Missourians filed for unemployment. The Department of Labor said it’s communicating to those who were overpaid, but the people on the other side say they spend hours on hold or never get through.
“The way this has been handled since March of 2020 has been a disaster,” Sen. Doug Beck, D-St. Louis, said.
Since the start of the pandemic, 46,000 Missourians have been overpaid unemployment benefits, which totals about $150,000,000. Over the summer, Gov. Mike Parson’s administration allowed the state’s department of labor to waive the federal portion.
“We sent out mailings to folks who had overpayments on the federal portion,” legislative liaison for the Missouri Department of Labor and Industrial Relations Benjamin Terrell told the Senate Appropriations Committee Thursday. “We sent letters to all of them and communicated with them and sent a form that they could fill out. If they filled it out and returned it to us, and they were eligible, then the collections on the federal portion were waived.”
He told the committee members; the state portion couldn’t be waived because there is no state statute which is where the legislation sponsored by Beck and Sen. Lincoln Hough, R-Springfield, comes in.
“It’s been frustrating for everybody and now what we are seeing is garnishments are happening still, we’re seeing that you don’t get the same person to deal with your case,” Beck said, “They go from person to person, and they get different answers.”
Hough said both his and Beck’s office fields dozens of calls about the overpayments, which is why their legislation would waive the requirement for Missourians to pay the state portion and to streamline the waiver process.
Tom Chessman, a retired bus driver in the St. Louis area, told senators he paid back the state the overpayment, and then filled out the form.
“About a month or so ago, they sent me a check covering all the money,” Chessman said,
Chessman said back in October 2021, he received a letter from the department telling him what he owed back since he was overpaid. In December, he was given the money back.
But he was lucky.
“Others who have applied with the same criteria were denied,” Ben Ford, a retired Teamsters Union member, said. “At times, our drivers are being told different responses by different people they talk to at the same state office.”
He said some bus drivers are having their wages garnished to pay back the state portion.
“Drivers are concerned if their home will have a lien placed by the state which occurred to one of our drivers,” Ford said. “Lottery winners held because of the unjust unemployment payback which happened to another one of our drivers. Will their tax refund be held by the state? Which is happening to some of our drivers.”
A similar bill to Hough and Beck’s was filed last year, but it didn’t make it across the finish line. This year, Beck said the state has plenty of money to let these people keep the overpayment.
“The notices are not timely, so overall, I think this goes to the department’s handling of this problem that is no fault of the people filing for these benefits that were told in the beginning that they had them coming,” Beck said.
St. Louis County Special School District Tracie Engelmeyer told the committees she owes back $6,600.
“It’s just so inconsistent with everything that’s going on and how they were telling people different things,” Engelmeyer said. “Out of 225 of us, some of us are fine, some of us aren’t, some of them have been reversed.”
She said her school district told her that bus drivers would qualify for unemployment benefits even though they are contracted. Engelmeyer then called the Department of Labor, who assured her she qualified for unemployment benefits.
“She goes, you’ve been affected by no point of your own, she said, plus, you should get the $600 from the federal and I said okay,” Engelmeyer said to the committee, explaining her conversation with the department. Now, she’s one of the thousands trying to understand what she owes, and if she has to pay.
“I’m just asking somehow, it gets fixed,” Engelmeyer said.
Other lawmakers on the committee agree with the legislation.
“I’m trying to figure out, why are we punishing them?,” Sen. Karla May, D-St. Louis said.
“The sake of consistency and sort of having a uniformed response a clear policy and doing the right thing and ensuring that people who had already experienced hard times aren’t forced to sacrificed even more,” Sen Lauren Arthur, D-Kansas City said. “This is the right thing to do.”
Chairman of the committee, Sen. Dan Hegeman, said he believes the bill will be debated on the Senate floor but where it goes from there, he doesn’t know.
“I think it’s great for us to bring that forth and have that discussion on the floor and committee,” Hegeman said.
In the first year of the pandemic, the state paid out more than $5 billion in unemployment.
When contacted Friday the Department of Labor said as of Jan. 18, there were roughly 38,800 waivers filed and of that 13,200 were approved and 18,300 were denied.
The department says some of the main reasons for denial are failure to provide information and providing inaccurate information. Another reason is failing to meet equity and good conscience standard, meaning the person stated that the repayment would not require them to give up money or change their actions/choices negatively or would not result in them not being able to provide basic needs.
A final reason could be they submitted the waiver too late. Once receiving the form, it must be filled out and returned within 30 days of the date of the notice.
Hough’s legislation is Senate Bill 673 and Beck’s bill is Senate Bill 709.