School Bus Drivers Got Unemployment During Shutdown. Now Missouri Wants It Back
As a local union rep, Dan Thacker isn’t accustomed to dealing with unemployment processes. But when the COVID-19 crisis started hitting St. Louis hard 10 months ago, that changed.
Thacker, the principal officer with Teamsters Local 610, started receiving emails from Missouri state officials — emails that prompted him to encourage union members affected by school shutdowns to apply for unemployment. They included more than 500 school bus drivers and monitors represented by the union, many of whom typically work 25 to 30 hours a week when school is in session.
The communications from the state "were very clear that there were going to be many people that are not normally eligible for unemployment that would be eligible,” Thacker told St. Louis on the Air.
Many of the workers, who were laid off in the spring with no return-to-work date in sight, applied for unemployment and were approved. But now, Thacker explained, they’re receiving letters demanding those funds be returned.
“I never dreamed in a million years that they would be approved if they shouldn’t have received it and be asked to pay the money back,” Thacker said. He added that it’s not just the state funds but the additional federal compensation that his members are expected to pay back.
“A lot of them are upwards of $9,000,” he said.
The Missouri Department of Labor did not respond to several messages seeking comment.
The affected workers that Teamsters Local 610 represents are public-sector employees working directly for school districts, not for contractors. But as Thacker explained, it’s not just his members who are affected.
“The state of Missouri has over 11,300 people that they’re claiming to have overpaid for unemployment benefits during this time — it’s $44 million they’re requesting back from people,” Thacker said.
Few of these workers are sitting on thousands of dollars in extra money. Now the state is threatening to begin garnishing their wages.
Teresa Lynn, who works for the Special School District of St. Louis County, wrote in to say that some of her colleagues have received letters and some haven’t. She’s one of those who have received letters demanding repayment.
“I just received another letter stating they are going to garnish my wages,” Lynn said, adding that the whole ordeal has been emotionally draining and stressful.
Cheryl Bellamy, a resident of Union, Missouri, sent St. Louis on the Air an email about her experience as a bus monitor as well as a cook for a state school for the severely disabled.
“On March 29, 2020, I was told by [contractor] First Student to file for unemployment,” Bellamy wrote. “I need both jobs to survive. I make more money on the bus than at the school. So I called unemployment, and on the fourth day finally got a person to talk to. … I explained the situation and she said I qualified … [a]nd to be sure and declare what I was receiving from the school.
“I was working from home and continued to be paid from the school. Before taxes and deductions, I declared the $263.50 per week I was receiving, every week as instructed. Unemployment gave me $31 per week. Then the federal help arrived of $600 per week! What a relief. I paid taxes also on all of this. We returned to work on August 24, 2020.”
But a few weeks later, Bellamy wrote, she started receiving “nasty letters” demanding that she address overpayment immediately. The state is now seeking $6,000.
“I do not have it,” Bellamy wrote. “They actually tried to set me up for a ‘payment’ plan. I said absolutely not, I am not guilty.”
Thacker agreed. He noted that the state’s original solicitation suggested that workers should apply to the state for unemployment, and that they’d likely be declared ineligible but then routed to a different program instead. His workers are not at fault if they followed the instructions and were wrongly approved, he said.
“This pandemic money, it was set up [as] a federally funded program to assist people who were losing money due to coronavirus, and I believe 100% that these bus drivers should have absolutely qualified for it,” Thacker said. “They lost their summer school routes. They lost income due to that. No one was hiring at the time, back in April and May. There wasn’t work to be found for anyone. And they had no clear date on if or when they would return to school.”
Thacker said for now he is encouraging anyone receiving such letters to file an appeal. He’s also working on lobbying the state to correct its error.
“We have several state senators and representatives that are on board with us — they feel that the state obviously made a mistake and these people should not have to repay this money,” he said.
“St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.