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‘Conversations,’ not data, led to Parson’s decision to cut off pandemic jobless aid in Missouri

‘Conversations,’ not data, led to Parson’s decision to cut off pandemic jobless aid in Missouri

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Gov Parson addresses the Missouri legislature

Gov. Mike Parson waves to the crowd after he addressed a joint session of the legislature on Monday, June 11, 2018, at the capitol building in Jefferson City. At left is Speaker of the House, Todd Richardson. Photo by J.B. Forbes, jforbes@post-dispatch.com

JEFFERSON CITY — Missouri Gov. Mike Parson made the decision to cut pandemic unemployment benefits in May after having “conversations” with aides and business owners across the state.

But records show Parson received little in the way of written briefings and hard data from labor experts in his own administration in the run-up to the controversial decision.

In response to a Post-Dispatch Sunshine Law request, the Missouri Department of Labor and Industrial Relations said there were no related records compiled by the agency and forwarded to the governor’s office in the month preceding the decision.

“I have not located any documents that I consider to be ‘briefings, data or information’ regarding the potential effects of ending federal pandemic unemployment aid,” said Bart Matanic, assistant general counsel for the department, in an email Monday.

Matanic said there were some legal analyses related to the newspaper’s questions, but those are closed under the state’s Sunshine Law.

Rather than review reports, Parson spokeswoman Kelli Jones said the governor instead talked to people about the issue.

“Governor Parson had many conversations with (the department), his administration, and business owners across the state,” Jones said Monday.

Like other actions he has taken during the pandemic, the decision by Parson appears to be more of a political one designed to get workers back into jobs at a time when the pandemic’s toll was ebbing and businesses were struggling to find workers.

Business groups, who supported Parson in his 2020 bid for a full, four-year term, were complaining at the time that the enhanced benefits have enticed laid-off workers to stay home.

“It is time that we end these programs that have incentivized people to stay out of the workforce,” Parson told reporters at a Capitol news conference announcing the policy change.

His decision mirrored similar action in the Republican-led states of Alabama, Arkansas, Montana, Mississippi and South Carolina. The move meant Missouri stopped participating on June 12 in all federal pandemic unemployment programs, including the $300-per-week boost to regular state unemployment, benefits for gig workers and the self-employed, plus the extra 13 weeks of checks beyond the usual 20 provided by the state.

At the time, about 144,000 Missourians were receiving the boosted benefits.

Economists and worker advocates warned the cut-off was unlikely to have a significant effect on the labor market. Data has since proven them largely correct.

For example, the U.S. Department of Labor said the state gained 15,000 jobs in July, a month after the governor ended federal unemployment benefits that he said “incentivized people to stay out of the workforce.”

That amounted to growth of just 0.5%, compared with 0.6% nationally. Missouri’s labor force participation rate, the percentage of working-age residents who were working or seeking a job, was unchanged.

Neighboring Illinois outperformed Missouri in July even though it was still paying the federal unemployment supplement at the time. Illinois added 35,400 jobs in July, matching the national growth rate of 0.6%.

Last week, the federal government reported that job gains were weak for a second straight month in September, with only 194,000 jobs added, though the unemployment rate fell to 4.8% from 5.2%.

During the pandemic, Parson has been criticized for not mandating face masks, which were recommended by the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention as a way to slow the spread of COVID-19.

He also eschewed any orders to close businesses to protect public health, suggesting that people, not government, should make that decision.

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