I'm looking forward to this Easter a lot more than last Easter. A year ago, we were in the middle of the unknown. For the first time in generations, we faced a new sweeping communicable disease. Businesses shuttered. People were out of work. People were afraid to go out, to meet with family and friends or to go to church. It all made for an unusual Easter.
Things are at least a little better this year. The coronavirus vaccines have started to slow down the number of cases in the U.S, and there has been a big drop in new cases over the last two months. I think people feel like it's safer to have Easter with their families or to attend church services this weekend. It's good to start getting back to normal.
COVID-19 created some unusual challenges over the past year. When the unemployment rate spiked to 14.8 percent in May 2020, Congress and President Trump approved emergency measures to help those affected by this sudden loss of jobs. Part of this program was to distribute additional unemployment benefits to those who suddenly found themselves out of work.
Like any government program, the distribution of these unemployment benefits wasn't perfect. It was a difficult time. The labor department was scrambling to keep up with the sudden burst of activity. There were overpayments made in some cases, but many of these overpayments were made to people that hadn't done anything wrong. In one case, I was told that the person who was overpaid actually contacted the department and told them they were being overpaid.
As things got back to normal and the crush of unemployment claims lessened, it was brought to light that these overpayments had occurred. The majority of these overpayments were from federal funds that were provided to pay for the federal expansion to unemployment benefits.
Folks started contacting my office. Folks who had temporarily been out of work and had reported their unemployment honestly were now being asked to pay back thousands and, in some cases, tens of thousands of dollars.
I don't expect people to be allowed to keep money they obtained dishonestly. Fraud on the unemployment system is a problem, and it hurts both businesses and the workers who are temporarily relying on the unemployment system. But we weren't dealing with fraud in this case, we were dealing with mistakes. And we were dealing with people who were out of work during a once-in-a-generation event.
My question was, "What is going to happen to the federal money if the state did get the money back?" The answer is it was going back to the federal government. With the level of fiscal responsibility the current administration has demonstrated, I would rather the money stay with Missouri families. On top of that, the federal government didn't want the funds back. The solution seemed clear to me.
This week, we heard House Bill 1083 in the Senate's Governmental Accountability and Fiscal Oversight Committee. This legislation, which I am handling in the Senate, will forgive the overpayment of federal overpayments, while still allowing the state to recover any unemployment benefits that were lost due to fraud. It is simply the right thing to do for the working families of Missouri.
As I said, I'm looking forward to Easter this year. My family will be getting together for the holiday, and I hope you and yours have a safe and happy Easter.
State Sen. Mike Bernskoetter, R-Jefferson City, represents Missouri's 6th District and shares his perspective on statehouse issues twice a month.