‘It’s Beyond Gone’: Missouri Residents Ordered To Repay Unemployment Benefits File Appeals
Letters from the Department of Labor indicate it's trying to recoup money it accidently overpaid to out-of-work people.
Ballwin resident Larissa White panicked when she started getting letters from the Missouri Department of Labor in early June.
The state wanted her to pay back more than $8,000 in unemployment benefits.
White, an actor, said she hesitantly applied for the benefits after her theater gigs and on-camera work dried up in March due to the coronavirus pandemic.
“I feel as if I should have never have applied in the first place,” she said. “This almost feels as if this has been more trouble than it’s worth, except for the fact that it did help me pay my bills.”
After initially approving her application, White said the state later told her she didn’t qualify because she “voluntarily” left her theater job. But White said she didn’t quit, the job just ended — a normal occurrence in the industry.
White is one of an unknown number of Missourians who have received letters from the Missouri Department of Labor demanding repayment of unemployment benefits. The department did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Missouri Sen. Brian Williams, D-University City, said he’s working with the department to figure out why it’s trying to get the money back.
“No one knows why,” he said. “It appears that the department made a mistake with some of these benefits, and it’s clear to me — and I would hope everyone — that unemployed Missourians should not have to pay the government for its mistakes.”
Williams said he’s helped “quite a few constituents” so far with the issue, including a single mom in Bridgeton.
The latest round of pandemic relief passed by Congress in December includes a provision allowing states to waive these overpayments, stating “collection must not be against equity or good conscience.” But Missouri has not yet decided to implement the waivers.
Williams said the money Missouri is trying to recoup has already been spent on groceries, gas and other bills.
“I'll be holding the Department of Labor accountable, and making sure that folks in my district and beyond aren't forced to pay back money during these challenging times,” he said.
The St. Louis Volunteer Lawyers and Accountants for the Arts is offering pro bono help to White and about a dozen other freelance artists appealing the state’s repayment demands.
White sent in her appeal this summer, but due to a backlog her hearing isn’t until next week. She’s hopeful it will clear things up. “If not, I don't know what I'm going to do,” she said.
VLAA Executive Director Sue Greenberg said the problem likely stems from the fact that the Department of Labor was “overwhelmed and ill-equipped” to handle the influx of unemployment claims from nontraditional workers.
Before the pandemic, freelancers and gig workers didn’t qualify for unemployment benefits. But that changed when Congress passed the CARES Act in March, providing Pandemic Unemployment Assistance of up to $600 a week to self-employed and gig workers.
Greenberg said the state should focus on bigger pandemic problems.
“Going after their own citizens to ask for money the people don’t have when they have been directed by the federal government to let it go isn't a good use of anybody’s energy,” Greenberg said.
Jim Guest is the director of the volunteer lawyers program at the nonprofit Legal Services of Eastern Missouri. He’s working with about 100 people who have received letters from the state.
“No one was getting rich on this,” he said. “People have used these funds to survive, put food on the table, pay rent, pay car payments, pay health insurance, pay health costs. So most of the funds, I think, have been spent on what they were designed to be spent for.”
Guest said the state letters include language indicating if people don’t pay back the money, the state can garnish their wages when they start a new job.
“It can be really frightening to people who have done everything they can and now have a new job and are going to get money taken out of them,” he said. “I want to stress this is through no fault of their own; they did not do anything wrong.”
Ben Wheeler, an Olivette resident, is worried that will happen to him. He received three letters last week, which said he needs to pay back about $8,000.
“It’s beyond gone,” Wheeler said of the unemployment money he collected last year after losing most of his income.
Wheeler is a jazz musician and an adjunct professor at Webster University. He also provides for three kids at home. He plans to appeal the repayment with the help of the VLAA.
“Paying isn’t an option,” he said.
Jaclyn Driscoll contributed to this story.
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