Missouri unemployment checks are about to get smaller — and harder to get.
Gov. Mike Parson on Tuesday added Missouri to the growing list of states dumping federal pandemic unemployment aid, amid a chorus of complaints from businesses 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.
Parson’s decision mirrors similar action in Alabama, Arkansas, Montana, Mississippi and South Carolina. On Tuesday, Idaho Gov. Brad Little and Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee also moved to cut off federal unemployment aid.
Parson, a Republican, said Missouri will stop 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.
Roughly 144,000 Missourians were receiving the boosted benefits as of the week ending April 17, according to the most recent comprehensive data from the U.S. Department of Labor. About 50,500 of those were on regular state benefits and will lose the boost if they’re still on the rolls by mid-June. The other 93,500 were on programs designed for gig workers, the self-employed and those who have exhausted standard state benefits. They will lose benefits entirely unless their situation changes.
Parson’s announcement brought fast reaction from Democrats.
“Stripping unemployment benefits just to force Missourians into jobs without a living wage or benefits will only increase the burden of poverty on our working families,” tweeted St. Louis Mayor Tishaura O. Jones.
Congress, now led by Democrats, voted in March to keep the programs going through early September.
Parson said on Tuesday that businesses need help now.
Restaurants, hotels and others in the service sector have complained for months that the federal boost, coupled with the state’s maximum benefit of $320 per week, has made it more profitable for people to stay home than work low-wage jobs.
Missouri paid an average state benefit in March of almost $260 a week. But an unemployed worker receiving the boost and the maximum state benefit could make slightly more staying home — $620 per week — than working full time at $15 per hour.
Economists and worker advocates have pushed back on the idea that most unemployed are simply sitting at home collecting checks.
They point out that the virus is still infecting hundreds of Missourians each day, and despite the arrival of vaccines, the state remains well below the threshold for herd immunity.
Some may also be looking for a new career after getting laid off last year, or caring for children who are still attending school remotely.
“If you just got laid off from a restaurant or hotel in the middle of a pandemic last year, maybe you don’t want to go back to a restaurant or hotel,” said Steven Fazzari, an economist at Washington University.
The Missouri Chamber of Commerce and Industry applauded the move all the same.
“Right now employers are deeply concerned about their ability to find the workers they need,” Chamber President and CEO Dan Mehan said in a statement. “It is clear that now is the right time to suspend these benefits as we seek to get Missourians back on the job and restore our economy.”
Billie Kilts, the general manager at Drunken Fish in St. Louis’ Central West End, said the same thing in an interview Tuesday afternoon.
“It’s going to be good for us,” she said. “And not just us or just restaurants — everyone’s having the same problem hiring right now.”
Kilts was one of several restaurant managers who attended a job fair for neighborhood eateries last week aimed at hiring 75 or more to handle resurgent demand. Roughly a dozen candidates showed up.
“Hopefully we’ll see a turnaround so we can take care of some customers,” Kilts said. “The business is there, we just need the people.”
Alexia Keil, a 45-year-old single mom in south St. Louis County, said Parson’s announcement brought tears to her eyes.
She’s looked all over for a job that pays enough to replace the one she lost at a Clayton marketing agency last year, but it hasn’t been easy with an associate degree.
She acknowledged that plenty of low-wage jobs are open, but said she needs more than $12 per hour to afford the basics.
“Who is going to watch my kids for free?” she asked. “I’m not going to be able to afford child care.”
The extra $300 per week — combined with mortgage forbearance and calls to creditors — has allowed her to keep looking for a job that would actually pay the bills.
Now, she said, “if I don’t have something by June 12, I have no idea what I am going to do.”