Businesses reopen as unemployment numbers climb


By Jordan Meier and Vivian Kolks, Missouri News Network

COVID-19 has left a historic number of Missourians unemployed and seeking to collect compensation. As more people need help, the news has been filled with stories of overwhelmed phone lines, unanswered claims and stressed Missourians.

As many businesses prepared to reopen this week, state officials discussed the huge demand for unemployment benefits and the impact that going back to work could have on Missourians.

“Normally at this time of year, we process about 2,300 to 3,000 initial unemployment claims a week,” Department of Labor and Industrial Relations Director Annie Hui said April 29. “In the last five weeks, we have had two historic weeks where we have processed well over 100,000 initial unemployment claims.”

As April came to a close, state officials reported over 214,000 unemployment claims related to COVID-19 — a total in that month alone that exceeds the 183,823 claims made in 2019.

Many of the newly unemployed have reported difficulty in accessing the state’s Department of Labor website to file claims and confusion over how and when they will receive state unemployment payments and special federal compensation tied to the pandemic.

Hui said that $500 million has been disbursed to Missourians so far, and of the 400,000 people who have filed for unemployment, 76 percent have received at least one check.

As the state and therefore businesses reopen, Hui clarified that those with diminished hours once they return to work could still file for some unemployment benefits. However, she said those who refuse to return to work could lose out on the benefits.

“If an employer provides the employee with suitable work to return, and the employee chooses not to return to work, then unemployment benefits will cease,” Hui said.

However, if a business chooses to remain closed after the state reopening Monday, the Department of Labor said employees of those businesses may still collect unemployment benefits if they are eligible.

What’s available

According to a news release from the state, qualifying individuals are eligible for weekly benefit payments of between $133 and $320 and an additional $600 from the Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation program. Those federal payments were included in the federal CARES Act signed by President Donald Trump on March 27.

According to the Missouri Department of Labor, the state was not able to begin providing the $600 Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation until April 13. So far, the state has distributed more than $300 million in those targeted payments to over 181,000 applicants. Those payments can continue for qualified unemployed residents until the week of July 25.

State regulations limit a person from receiving unemployment benefits for more than 20 weeks. For workers who have exhausted their unemployment benefits, federal Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation will provide an extra 13 weeks of benefits. That program is expected to be available beginning Friday.

The Labor Department could not provide a projected number of how many workers would be receiving these benefits. Officials encouraged claimants within an active benefits year to keep filing weekly requests.

Individuals who are self-employed or otherwise ineligible for regular unemployment can seek to qualify to receive an extra payment beyond the baseline $600 federal payment. Missouri is one of 10 states that has begun processing and paying claims for those workers through the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program.

Many of those affected by delays in payments have taken to Facebook and other social media to complain. The Department of Labor did not comment on any delays. But in order to handle the workload, it has hired more staff while continuing to encourage claimants to file online.

Stress of return

While many workers may be excited to get back to “normal life,” other Missourians are concerned about the reopening.

In response to those with concerns, Mark Stringer, director of the Department of Mental Health, said it’s OK to have to anxiety.

“Many people who will be returning to work next week will understandably be nervous about it, and there is nothing wrong with that,” Stringer said during an April 29 news conference. “But I can assure you that proper precautions and common sense make a huge difference in how and where the virus appears.”