Updated at 5:20 p.m. Thursday with more information.
JEFFERSON CITY — Gov. Mike Parson said Missourians who received unemployment payments in error should “most certainly” be required to return them.
Speaking to the media over Zoom during a Missouri Press Association event Thursday, Parson said he was opposed to a blanket policy on the issue because some people intentionally tried to defraud the system, while others made honest mistakes.
“If you fraudulently used the system you should be held accountable for that,” Parson said. “If you made a mistake, then you got paid too much and you should pay it back.”
Parson said those who mistakenly received too much money have an “obligation” to return it because they are “taking it away from somebody else. I know it's easy to say it's government money. But the reality [is] that needs to go somewhere else that needs it.”
Missouri has asked an unknown number of people to return unemployment payments the state says they should not have received. The Missouri Department of Labor has not responded to requests for more information about how many people are affected or the amount of money involved.
One person affected is jazz bassist Ben Wheeler, a father of three who lives in University City and is facing an $8,000 bill from the state of Missouri. He believes the confusion arose because he is also an adjunct professor at Webster University and receives some wages through that job, though most of his income comes through musical gigs that have all but dried up during the pandemic.
“I guess there’s some fine print somewhere that if you’re a teacher and you have reasonable assurance you’ll be reemployed next year, you can’t apply for unemployment," said Wheeler, who added he has no guarantee that Webster will hire him from one semester to the next.
Most of Wheeler's unemployment payments came in the form of the $600 weekly federal supplement from the March stimulus bill, not state unemployment money. But months later he heard from a Missouri official who asked about his teaching position.
“I never lied, I never said I was fired or anything like that," Wheeler said. “There was no omission of information. There was no mistake on my end.”
His non-teaching musician friends aren't facing demands from Missouri to repay thousands of dollars.
“It’s weird," Wheeler said. "I got punished for being an adjunct.”
Jim Guest of nonprofit legal clinic Legal Services of Eastern Missouri told the Post-Dispatch last week that the agency began seeing overpayment appeal cases in the fall. They now make up most of the agency’s work on unemployment cases, he said.
Guest said even those who truly received benefits they weren’t entitled to weren’t intentionally trying to “game the system.”
“The overpayment of unemployment benefits is probably the thing that our caucus is getting contacted the most about right now,” said House Minority Leader Crystal Quade, D-Springfield. “That’s absolutely ludicrous that we’re going to force these individuals to bring money back.”
The Missouri House, Senate and Department of Labor discussed the issue with the governor’s office last week. Senate Majority Leader Caleb Rowden, R-Columbia, has said he does not expect the state will be able to get the money back.
Citing the most recent federal stimulus package, Democrats have urged the administration to forgo recouping the money.
The federal bill permits states to waive the return of overpayments if they determine the individual was without fault and that demanding repayment “would be contrary to equity and good conscience.”
Wheeler, the University City musician, said he doesn't understand the political motivations of Parson, a Republican, in refusing to use the new waiver authority.
“It’s not like it was Joe Biden that passed this law," Wheeler said. "It was under Trump and the Republican Congress. I don’t see why they’re trying to fight that.”
Jack Suntrup and Jacob Barker of the Post-Dispatch contributed.
‘Even the ones that turn out to be valid, they were not applicants trying to game the system,’ says a nonprofit attorney helping people appeal Missouri’s demands for repayment.