‘How am I supposed to survive?’ | Missourians at a loss as state demands repayment of unemployment money

Published: Mar. 26, 2022 at 7:23 PM CDT|Updated: Mar. 26, 2022 at 9:08 PM CDT
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JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (KMOV.com) -- Missouri Governor Mike Parson is telling desperate people in his state to pay up, but his response is not a satisfactory answer to some lawmakers, who will call top state leaders to the carpet to testify about unemployment benefits on Tuesday.

A News 4 Investigation recently revealed thousands of residents are being told they were incorrectly paid unemployment benefits they say they needed during the pandemic.

“To try to figure out how to pay $10,000 back right now, it’s impossible,” said Daphne Lindsey Thomas. Thomas is just one of thousands of people who were told they owe the state of Missouri. Last month, News 4 Investigates revealed at least 11,300 people had been mistakenly overpaid on federal unemployment funds, to the tune of more than $44 million. But state officials have refused to do interviews or provide more information about just how widespread the problem is.

The people who spoke to News 4 said they thought the money was to help them make ends meet in the pandemic.

“I feel I didn’t do anything wrong but what I was supposed to do?” said Thomas. Though fired from her job over COVID concerns, Daphne was accepted for unemployment and paid for five months, before the state did an about-face. “I just don’t believe, why would they give to you and then take it away?”

School bus driver Jerry Littleton said when schools shut down, he and his co-workers were encouraged to file for unemployment. He was told he has to pay the money back, but other coworkers were not, leaving him completely confused by the state’s actions.

“That’s the words they used, ‘no fault on your part,’ ‘no omission on your part,’ ‘no fraud on your part,’ but you need to pay this back, because we made a mistake, I’m like, okay,” he said.

Michele Evermore with the National Employment Law Project believes citizens shouldn’t bear the burden of states’ mistakes.

“This is absolutely a crisis. I would characterize it as nothing short of that and it’s a national crisis,” she said. “They have to look for mistakes as a matter of law, but it took them so long to get around to it, that people had accrued huge balances,” Evermore said. Federal law, she notes, allows states to waive the debt.

“Generally what that means, if the agency made a mistake or the person made a good faith error and recouping that money would create hardship, then that standard should apply,” Evermore said.

But recently, Governor Parson indicated a wholescale waiver isn’t in the cards.

“Some people did try to defraud the system and we know that, to give them a free pass is one thing,” he said. “If you got more money than you should, you should have an obligation to pay it back because you are taking away from someone.”

But Littleton explains the amount certain people received, in many cases critical payments, is not something that can be returned.

“Nobody has the chump change to try to change it back,” Littleton said.

Thomas said she got a letter in the mail, saying she had an appeal hearing, but the date had already passed by the time she got the letter. The state so far has not answered our repeated questions about how many of the overpayments were fraud, how many were just mistakes and how many are the fault of the state.

This whole issue is coming before a hearing in Jefferson City tomorrow afternoon. You can find more information about that hearing, here.

In the meantime, if you want to get in touch with your state or federal representatives about this issue, you can find their information, here.

You can find the governor’s contact information, here.