ST. LOUIS — Unemployment insurance kept Marissa Crozier afloat after she was laid off as a costume designer for St. Louis Community College’s theater program and her costume gigs for the Muny and Opera Theatre of St. Louis vanished because of COVID-19.
When her part-time job at the community college resumed in August for the fall semester, she went back to work. Then, she got a surprise letter from the Missouri Division of Employment Security: she had been ineligible for unemployment benefits, and she needed to repay the state almost $8,000. She isn’t entirely sure why the state says she was ineligible, and it could be months before the state hears her appeal because of a backlog of cases.
“It’s extremely stressful,” said Crozier, a St. Louis resident. “The unemployment office says that they’re going to keep sending me these letters that I owe them this money.”
Crozier is one of an unknown number of people in Missouri that the state says it paid in error and is seeking large repayments. Unemployment offices around the country were slammed with a massive surge in unemployment applications when the first COVID-19 shutdown began this spring. Complicating the situation were new federal emergency unemployment programs established to extend jobless benefits and help self-employed workers who historically have been ineligible for unemployment benefits.
“Even the ones that turn out to be valid, they were not applicants trying to game the system,” said Jim Guest of Legal Services of Eastern Missouri, a nonprofit legal clinic working with many people appealing state unemployment repayment demands. “They were people applying for benefits they believed they were entitled to.”
Talks are underway among the House, Senate, Gov. Mike Parson’s office and the Missouri Department of Labor to address the situation. A spokeswoman for the Republican governor said more information will be made available later this week.
“It’s an issue and we need to work through it,” said Senate Majority Leader Caleb Rowden, R-Columbia.
But, he said, he doubts the money will be recouped.
“If it’s what we think it looks like, the state’s probably going to have to eat it,” Rowden said.
Democrats also are pushing the administration to abandon the efforts, citing a passage in the most recent federal stimulus package that allows the state to waive repayment of the assistance.
The language, buried deep within the massive, $900 million bill, said forcing people to repay money they received without fault on their part “would be contrary to equity and good conscience.”
It’s a waiver Sue Greenberg is hoping Missouri implements quickly. The organization she leads, St. Louis Volunteer Lawyers and Accountants for the Arts, works with artists throughout the region, many of whom have had trouble with the state’s unemployment system because of the nature of their work — a mixture of wages and self-employment income at multiple venues.
“It’s just unclear to me whether the people in Jefferson City are aware of what was included in the recent bill,” Greenberg said.
Guest, at Legal Services, said most of the clinic’s unemployment work right now is appealing overpayment cases, which began cropping up in the fall. Because the federal government supplemented jobless benefits with a $600 weekly payment for months, many people are facing repayment demands of thousands of dollars. If they don’t appeal, Guest said, the state can garnish their wages.
“It’s scary for a lot of these folks,” he said.
Sen. Brian Williams, D-University City, said the unemployment assistance has been a lifeline to struggling families across the state.
“If a person applied for benefits, told the truth, and was approved by the state, they shouldn’t have to jump through hoops weeks later just because the state dropped the ball. That money is gone. It’s been spent. It strengthened our economy during tough times and that’s a good thing,” Williams said.
He likened the state seeking repayment to harassment.
“It’s time for Missouri’s state government to follow the law, waive these payments, and leave these struggling families alone,” Williams said.
Sen. Holly Rehder, R-Sikeston, said she has had one constituent raise the issue with her, but she was unaware of the possibility of a waiver.
“That is something I am definitely going to look into,” Rehder said Tuesday.
Originally posted on Tuesday at 5:45 p.m.