The Missouri Department of Labor and Industrial Relations seems oblivious to the fact that a catastrophic global pandemic has shredded the state’s economy and plummeted thousands of Missourians into desperate financial straits. The department cares about one thing only: forcing repayment from people who were overpaid for their unemployment compensation. Even when informed that the money belongs to the federal government and that it wants to forgive the recipients, Missouri insists that people struggling on the margins still have to pay up.
The vindictive and heartless stand by Gov. Mike Parson’s administration has even Republican legislators protesting that this is overkill. It’s not as if people are gaming the system and getting rich off the state’s overpayment. The money went to buy food, pay rent and make sure beneficiaries’ electricity wasn’t cut off. In other words, the recipients survived during desperate times. How deviously selfish of them.
To get an idea of the pandemic’s massive impact, consider that the state paid out $236 million in unemployment benefits in 2019. That figure mushroomed to $5 billion in 2020.
“If they are not eligible, it is not their money,” Labor Department Director Anna Hui icily told the House Budget Committee. It’s not clear if she was speaking from empathy-free personal conviction or merely echoing her boss, Parson, who appeared to lump recipients of state overpayments in with fraudsters and cheats.
“If you fraudulently used the system you should be held accountable for that. If you made a mistake, then you got paid too much and you should pay it back,” Parson told the Missouri Press Association on Jan. 28.
In many if not most of these cases, however, it was the state government that made the mistake. It overpaid nearly $150 million. The state sent nasty letters telling about 46,000 beneficiaries that they had to pay the money back — or else. Some bills total $8,000 or even $14,000.
Some of that money was, in fact, sent to scofflaws and scammers. But the threatening letters being sent by the state lumps all the recipients into that same category of undeserving deadbeats: “We have determined that you were overpaid unemployment benefits by reason of your unintentional error, omission, or lack of knowledge of material fact,” is the wording used in at least one such letter, television station KRCG reported.
The federal government is telling Missouri to waive the debt and move on. But Parson’s government won’t budge. State legislators — Republicans as well as Democrats — are being inundated with calls from worried constituents who have received the threatening letters.