Missouri Senate Hears Bipartisan Pressure to Pardon Mistakenly Overpaid Unemployment Benefits | News

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Tracie Engelmeyer was among hundreds of bus drivers furloughed in St. Louis County in March 2020 due to the pandemic. School district officials told them that even though the drivers are contract workers, they would be eligible for unemployment benefits and urged them to apply.

Engelmeyer recalled the conversation she had with a school district representative during a Missouri Senate Appropriations Committee hearing Thursday.

“I said, ‘Are you sure?’ Because I’ve worked here for 24 years and I know we don’t do unemployment,” Engelmeyer said. “And she goes, ‘No, this year is different. … It’s a pandemic.’”

Engelmeyer then called the Missouri Department of Labor and Industrial Relations and was assured that she qualified for the pandemic unemployment program. So she and 225 bus drivers from her union applied, and many received benefits.

Nearly two years later, Engelmeyer is still fighting the state’s attempt to repay her $6,600 in unemployment benefits that the department now says she was not eligible for.

She is among approximately 46,000 Missouri residents who have been asked by the state to repay more than $150 million in overpayments made in 2020, according to the department.

On Thursday, the Senate Appropriations Committee debated a pair of identical sense-sponsored bills. Lincoln Hough, R-Springfield and Doug Beck, D-St. Louis County, this would remove the requirement for residents to repay state unemployment overpayments and streamline the waiver process overall.

“What we found – and Senator Hough can probably attest to this – is that the way this has been handled since March 2020 has been a disaster,” Beck said. “I would like us to take care of this. And it’s the right thing to do for Missourians who were put in this position in the first place.

Hough said he and Beck have “probably sent the lion’s share of correspondence to constituents — not just in our districts, but around the state — who deal with this.”

The state saw a historic number of Missourians apply for unemployment benefits in 2020. But like many other states, Missouri later realized its agencies had made mistakes. Some people who received unemployment benefits were not eligible and others were overpaid.

The state began garnishing wages and putting liens on the tax returns of those who were overpaid. Gov. Mike Parson was adamant that he would not accept federal permission to waive overpayments.

But in July, the Parson administration changed course. Missouri residents began receiving letters from the state saying they could avoid paying back federal benefits if they applied for a waiver within 30 days.

However, those Missourians still have to pay state-funded unemployment overpayments — something Republicans and House Democrats pushed back this spring.

Stressed bus drivers

During Thursday’s hearing, several bus drivers spoke of the immense stress bus drivers have endured trying to stay safe during the COVID-19 pandemic, while trying to navigate the waiver process. unemployment.

Retired Columbia bus driver Bob Ford said a number of bus drivers successfully appealed and did not have to repay the unemployment benefits they received. But others who have appealed with the same criteria have been denied.

“Sometimes our drivers get different responses from different people they talk to in the same state office,” Ford said.

Ford, like other witnesses at the hearing, described difficulties they encountered calling the state agency and not being able to get through or being cut off after waiting several hours.

The drivers live in uncertainty that the state could put a lien on their house or seize their wages, he said.

“Citizens who are following instructions from a state agency — which they did — shouldn’t have to go through this extra stress,” Ford said. “As a state, we depend on bus drivers to keep our children safe while getting them to our schools.”

Ben Terrell, legislative liaison for the Missouri Department of Labor and Industrial Relations, was questioned by the committee about inconsistencies in the waiver process.

“We have to look at the facts of each circumstance,” he said. “And so you could have two people who, on paper, look a lot alike, but in reality they have circumstances that change the determination of unemployment.”

Sen. Barbara Washington, D-Kansas City, asked Terrell if those turned down were told why, since most people who spoke at the hearing said they didn’t know.

Terrell said he wasn’t sure.

“The law doesn’t work if it’s not consistent,” Washington said. “And so I totally understand that facts make a difference. But if people say they have the same facts…then we need to understand why one person would be totally approved and another would not.

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