Lawmakers push for forgiveness on unemployment overpayments as Missouri considers waivers

Galen Bacharier
Springfield News-Leader
Elected officials discuss legislation on the floor of the Missouri House of Representatives on June 29, 2021. Democrats in the House are continuing to ask the governor to forgive accidental overpayments of unemployment benefits to around 46,000 Missourians.

Lawmakers are continuing to push Gov. Mike Parson to fully forgive excess unemployment payments mistakenly sent to around 46,000 Missourians during the pandemic, which are still being sought for recovery by the state.

The Missouri Department of Labor and Industrial Relations announced Tuesday it would begin putting a process in place to review whether to waive collections for those who received excess payments from federal programs. But in a call Wednesday with reporters, House Democrats said they wanted a guarantee — and for full forgiveness of overpayments from both state and federal programs.

"Let's see it first," said Rep. Peter Merideth, a Democrat from St. Louis. "We don't want to see another complicated, bureaucratic process people have to fight through."

Members of the minority caucus in the House, led by Minority Leader Crystal Quade of Springfield, have called on Parson on numerous occasions to forgive the accidental overpayments, including after the special legislative session last month. They said that since money to offset those payments is included in the state's budget — which Parson signed last week — he could forgive the debt and end the collections process at any time.

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The U.S Department of Labor has told states to be flexible when forgiving overpayments for people who were not at fault or engaged in fraud. Federal guidance does not require states to collect the overpayments.

A spokesperson for the governor's office did not respond to a request for comment.

Those eligible for potential forgiveness by the state's labor department will be notified in July and given instructions, the department said. The waiver only applies to federal benefit overpayments, and collection of overpayments from state benefits will begin in August.

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For months since the middle of the regular legislative session, lawmakers and the Department of Labor went back and forth over the issue, seeking an informal agreement to stop collections and for the department to withdraw liens it placed on the homes of those who had not paid back the excess.

Background:Missouri lawmakers push to let workers keep errant unemployment payments

"We could have done this in February," said Rep. LaKeySha Bosley, a Democrat from St. Louis, who said she believed the process undermined Missourians' trust in their government — a key measure in the state's push to curb COVID-19.

"While people might be getting vaccinated, they're not getting vaccinated as quickly because of things like this," Bosley said. "Because of the government always telling them 'we have your back,' but then when they get what they're supposed to get from the government, the government goes back and tells them 'well, you weren't supposed to get all of that, so we're going to need most of that back for ourselves.'"

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Galen Bacharier covers Missouri politics & government for the News-Leader. Contact him at gbacharier@gannett.com, (573) 219-7440 or on Twitter @galenbacharier.