ST. LOUIS (AP) — About 46,000 Missourians were mistakenly overpaid unemployment benefits as part of the stimulus during the coronavirus pandemic, and while the state wants the money back, some are having success in winning their appeals.
Missouri Department of Labor Director Anna Hui has said the state has a duty to collect the $150 million it overpaid people last year because a state law requires it. Hui and Republican Gov. Mike Parson have the power to forgive the federal portion of overpayments, but Parson has said the money should be repaid. Those who don't could have their wages garnished.
Some residents have won appeals to keep the money, including 27-year-old Larissa White of Ballwin, St. Louis Public Radio reported. The state said White voluntarily left an acting job, making her ineligible for more than $8,000 she collected while she was out of work. But she showed proof of her employment history during the hearing, and the payroll company disputing her claim didn't show up.
"It was a huge weight off of my chest," White said. "I mean, this has been a year of my life almost spent with this. So to know that it has paid off. It's indescribable how relieving it is."
Missouri is among 10 states that don't allow for forgiveness of unemployment benefits overpayments. A bipartisan group of state representatives introduced several bills that would keep the state from collecting federal overpayments when they don't involve fraud. Hui has said that's about 97% of the cases.
Rep. Jered Taylor, R-Republic, said the legal fight over the appeals will be costly to the state.
"I think we are going to spend a lot of resources going after the federal portion when we can waive it. The feds have given us the permission and the ability to to waive these," he said.
Some lawyers are hopeful about the legislation, but they're not banking on it.
Michelle Faron of the Kirkwood-based employment law firm McMichael, Logan, Schaeffer and Gilpin said that due to a backlog, she's only been able to schedule hearings for clients who filed appeals over the summer.
Several legal groups are offering pro bono help.
"I am hopeful that the state recognizes that it doesn't make sense to try to go after money that's already been spent, that no one's asking for from the federal government," said Jim Guest, director of the Volunteer Lawyers Program. "And these aren't bad people. These are not thieves who have taken money that doesn't belong to them."