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Senate to consider bipartisan unemployment overpayment waiver

  

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — The Missouri Senate is working on its own effort to prevent the state from recouping unemployment overpayments during the COVID-19 pandemic

SB 481, sponsored by Sen. Lincoln Hough, would direct the state of Missouri to apply for a federal waiver to prohibit the Department of Labor (DOL) Division of Employment Security (DES) from recovering or attempting to recover non-fraudulent federal overpayments incurred during Missouri’s proclaimed state of emergency. Pat Thomas, Hough’s chief of staff, said seeking repayment would harm Missourians reeling from the impact of the pandemic. 

“We want to figure out how to help honest Missourians — most of them probably applied for unemployment for the first time in their lives,” she told The Missouri Times. “The state made a mistake; they gave people money they shouldn’t have, and now the state wants their money back. What they’re saying is that we’ve got to do what’s right here. We can’t make these people pay it back; we have extra CARES Act money so let’s figure out how to do this.”

The effort passed out of the Senate Government and Fiscal Oversight Committee Thursday with bipartisan support. Thomas said the effort was one many in the upper chamber agreed on across party lines, with GOP Sen. Tony Luetkemeyer and Democratic Sen. Doug Beck co-sponsoring it. 

“There’s been a ton of support among other members of the legislature,” she said. “Senators have been getting so many calls from constituents. This is one of those things where the government did it badly, and we need to admit we made mistakes and we need to try to work through it.”

The House passed a parallel effort spearheaded by Rep. J. Eggleston earlier this month. Another bipartisan bill, it would allow DOL to forgive federal overpayments as well. The language was an amalgamation of bills from both sides of the aisle: four from Republicans and three from Democrats. 

Like the Senate version, Eggleston’s bill contained an emergency clause; it was rejected by the House after Eggleston said the department assured him it would not attempt collections in the interim. 

The House Special Committee on Government Oversight, which Eggleston vice-chairs, considered legislative action during a hearing in February, inquiring of Labor Director Dr. Anna Hui and taking testimony from witnesses affected by the policy. 

Hui said during her testimony that state law required her department and the state to pursue the $150 million in overpayments. She said 2.3 percent of the 46,000 cases were due to fraud.

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.