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story.lead_photo.caption Anna Hui, director of the Missouri Department of Labor and Industrial Relations, speaks Tuesday during a COVID-19 briefing as Gov. Mike Parson looks on. Photo by Submitted photo

As Missouri's statewide public health restrictions lifted Tuesday, so too will eligibility for unemployment assistance soon start to become a little more stringent — with the expectation being that more people will begin to return to work.

Anna Hui, director of the Missouri Department of Labor and Industrial Relations, said Tuesday the United States' unemployment program was always intended to be a stop-gap measure — "a temporary, partial replacement of income. It was never intended to replace anyone's total income."

Hui said the Missouri Labor Department has paid more than $2 billion in unemployment claims to date, with the highest weekly request volume having been in mid-April, when approximately 440,000 claims were filed.

She said eligible Missouri unemployment claimants have been receiving an average weekly benefit payment of nearly $900 since March 28, including a $600 federal supplement.

That federal supplement is available through July 25.

Unemployment is still historically high, Hui said, but it's trending down.

"It is time for employers and workers to have thoughtful and productive conversations on plans and steps that they are taking now to plan on how to return to work," she added.

Some key changes to the unemployment program to spur those conversations are a couple weeks away.

On July 5, people who want to continue to receive unemployment benefits will have to perform work search activities — a requirement that had been waived during the pandemic — and employers will also once again be charged for unemployment claims on their account.

Hui said career centers are reopening in a number of locations, and job search help is also available over the phone as well as online.

Employers are being encouraged to report to the Labor Department employees that refuse to return to work and continue to claim unemployment, even though "suitable work" is being offered.

"While we realize that not everyone can be brought back full-time into the workplace immediately," Hui said a helpful transition resource could be the Shared Work Unemployment Compensation Program.

Employers can use the program to have employees work reduced hours and make up the difference in their typical pay with unemployment benefits.

The program is offered as an alternative to layoffs when employers face a reduction in available work, but Hui said Tuesday that the program "can help transition employees safely back to the workplace while observing social distancing and providing flexible scheduling. The program offers reduced labor and turnover costs, while retaining skilled members of the workforce for that anticipated return to full operations."

More information on the program is available at labor.mo.gov/shared-work.

Hui said the department's Division of Labor Standards will also conduct free, on-site safety consultations to help identify hazards and cost-effective solutions. Sign-ups are available at labor.mo.gov/safe-at-work.

If an employer has non-symptomatic employees they want tested as part of a reopening strategy, it's not yet entirely clear what resources are available for employers to do that.

Dr. Randall Williams, director of the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services, said, "We're looking at that now, just trying to figure out — working with our counties and local health departments — just what the role of sentinel testing is for that, what the role of supporting our local counties is, doing that."

Sentinel testing has so far been used by the state to test for COVID-19 among high-risk groups of people in confined spaces — such as at long-term care facilities, jails, prisons and meat packing plants — as a way to proactively monitor those groups' health and try to stave off possible outbreaks before they can rapidly spread in such places.

Williams added the Missouri Department of Economic Development is also looking into the issue of resources for employers.

More guidelines for businesses amid reopening are available at showmestrong.mo.gov/businesses/, and current testing resource information is also available at showmestrong.mo.gov/testing-resources/.

"While we may never completely return to exactly the same work places, work processes and lifestyles that we had prior to COVID-19, we can all commit to finding new ways and resources that support Missouri as a wonderful place to live, work and raise a family," Hui said.

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