Missouri unemployment benefits are significantly less generous than the national average, capped at 20 weeks instead of the more typical 26. It was a troubling situation before, but with still-untold numbers of Missourians being at least temporarily thrown out of work by the pandemic, it’s about to become a dire one. Gov. Mike Parson should heed the call of some lawmakers to beef up the unemployment system on an emergency basis.
The necessary social distancing in response to the coronavirus pandemic has affected America’s economy at the ground level like nothing in our lifetimes. Orders prohibiting people from congregating in restaurants, bars or anywhere else are the most reliable way to thwart the spread of a virus that, if left unchecked, could by some estimates kill more than 2 million Americans. But the shutdown’s effects on the state’s economy are already daunting, with much of the service industry — wait staff, bartenders, others — being sidelined as their employers close shop.
Missouri’s latest jobless claims, like those nationally, are setting records. State officials say the number of claims for unemployment benefits in the past week was almost a quarter of the total for the entire year of 2019. That’s in excess of 40,000 claims, or about 10 times what the state sees in a normal week. And there’s no indication this will improve any time soon. The extension of additional jobless benefits in the new federal stimulus package should help, as will Parson’s laudable moves this week to scrap Missouri’s usual one-week waiting period for people who file because of the shutdown, as well as his waiving of work-search requirements — which would violate local stay-at-home orders even if there were jobs to search for.
Missouri’s 20-week limit on unemployment will still hobble people facing sudden personal financial crises not of their own making — who are, in essence, bearing the brunt of the stay-at-home orders that are so crucial to stopping this epidemic. Yet Parson so far has been noncommittal to calls by some Democrats to bring Missouri’s unemployment benefits up to what those workers would get in most other states.
The situation actually could have been worse. In 2016, the Republican-controlled Legislature overrode a veto by then-Gov. Jay Nixon, a Democrat, to impose the stingiest unemployment system in the country, capping benefits at 13 weeks. Only a state Supreme Court decision invalidating that law prevented the current situation from being even harder for these newly unemployed Missourians.
Parson and his GOP supermajority should consider that they are going to be judged this November by how responsive they are to Missourians hit by the economic fallout of the pandemic, including the unemployed. Moving quickly on issues like this — issues that directly affect citizens’ ability to weather this crisis — would go a long way toward convincing voters that they deserve to remain at the helm.
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