JEFFERSON CITY — Missouri Department of Labor Director Anna Hui testified in front of a House oversight committee Tuesday that the state has overpaid more than $150 million in unemployment benefits since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic.
Now the department is moving to get that money back from more than 45,000 people.
Hui said there are several unemployment programs that paid the money, and the average overpayment was about $4,200.
But lawmakers from both parties voiced their opposition, saying it’s unfair to ask people to repay the funds.
“I think we screwed up as a state government,” said Rep. John Eggleston, R-Maysville.
“You are going to be hard-pressed to find a more fiscally conservative person in here than me,” Eggleston said, but it’s too “late in the game” to ask for the money now. “I mean, if it was a week or so ago, I get it,” he said.
Lawmakers also heard from those who are being asked to repay the unemployment benefits they received by mistake.
One of those people is Cindy Knitting, a school bus driver from St. Louis. She says without unemployment benefits, she could not have made her house payments. She would have to repay $2,400. She said some co-workers have been asked for as much as $12,000.
“I just want it known that we did nothing wrong, we did every single thing that we were told to do, and now we are just supposed to start flinging out money,” Knitting said. “I’m sorry, it’s wrong.”
The majority of the overpayments come from federal unemployment benefits Congress approved in two stimulus bills. As a result, much of the money would be returned to the federal government, lawmakers were told.
Federal officials have given states discretion to waive any overpayments of the benefits.
Lawmakers from both parties indicated they would move forward to prevent the Department of Labor taking back the money. Bills to prohibit the state from collecting the money have been filed.
That sentiment goes against the wishes of Gov. Mike Parson, who has said the state should try to collect the money.
Parson said he believes fraud was involved in some cases, and in cases of mistakes, he told reporters last week, “it’s just life in general. If you got more money than you should, you should have an obligation to pay it back.”