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Legislators eye overpayment collection waivers

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — Missouri Democrats are eying legislative options to stop the Department of Labor from collecting on federal unemployment overpayments issued during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Two bills and a resolution were filed this week to block the state from its recouping efforts. House Minority Whip Doug Clemmons and Rep. LaKeySha Bosley filed bills to allow the state to pursue fraudulent payments only while Rep. Peter Merideth authored a resolution calling on Gov. Mike Parson to forgive the balance. The moves come after Labor Director Anna Hui discussed the issue before House committees this week.

“Frankly, I was taken aback by the cold-hearted attitude of Director Hui during committee this week,” Clemens said. “What we’re talking about is the people’s money given back to them in a time of need. That money kept a roof over their heads and put food on their tables. That time of need is not over. To ask people — in a crisis — to give back their own money because this administration made a nine-figure mistake is callous and unconscionable.”

Hui fielded questions from the House Special Committee on Government Oversight Tuesday afternoon, addressing the outcry and explaining that Missouri law requires the state and her department to go after the $150 million in overpayments. 

“In March 2020 when the pandemic hit, basically the public health situation, businesses and schools began shutting down forcing everyone to stay at home so we could address the spread of the virus,” she said. “Unemployment skyrocketed to historic heights.” 

Hui said Parson had ordered the collections, and the requirements could be reversed by legislative action. The director heard a passionate line of questioning from Rep. Raychel Proudie, who decried the state’s pursuit of the funds throughout the hearing. 

“The director herself is sitting in front of me, and something that came from her department told these folks that they have a quarter of their salary taken from them to do a repayment because of a miscellaneous reason, that is unacceptable,” she said. “How dare us do that; we weren’t laid off.“

Four witnesses testified before the committee, including business owners and those facing repayment requests from the government, with one saying she would rather have not gotten the assistance than be forced to repay it. 

In the upper chamber, Sen. Jill Schupp offered a similar amendment to a bill meant to provide COVID liability protection for businesses Tuesday evening. The amendment was struck down for going beyond the scope of the underlying bill.

A report from Auditor Nicole Galloway found that Missourians had received $4.8 billion in unemployment due to the pandemic as of December. Federal assistance was distributed through last October. 

Hui said 2.3 percent of the 46,000 cases of overpayment were due to fraud.