Unemployed Missourians would see benefits reduced under proposed legislation

Missouri workers who lose their jobs could see their unemployment benefits significantly reduced if state lawmakers move forward with a bill considered at a hearing Wednesday.

The bill, sponsored by Sen. Mike Bernskoetter, a Jefferson City Republican, aims to decrease the minimum amount of time someone can collect unemployment benefits from 13 weeks to eight weeks.

The current law states that if the state’s unemployment rate is at or below 6%, then people can collect unemployment benefits for 13 weeks. The proposed legislation would drop it to eight weeks if the unemployment rate is at or below 3.5%. It would be the among shortest amount of time for unemployment collection in the nation, an economics professor told The Star.

The unemployment rate as of December is 2.8%, according to the Missouri Department of Labor.

The weekly amount for unemployment benefits is 4% of the average of the two highest quarters in the individual’s base period, which is the 12-month period prior to their claim being filed, but the maximum amount is $320, according to the Missouri Department of Labor.

Current law allows for a sliding scale with a maximum of 20 weeks of benefit collection if the unemployment rate is at or above 9%. The proposed law keeps the 20 week maximum when the unemployment rate is over 9%.

“Local businesses are reporting that only one or two employees are showing up for work, or where the workers will only work a day or two before going back on unemployment. I know personally, I’ve had trouble trying to find employees,” Bernskoetter said in his testimony.

Bernskoetter and his wife have owned Art’s Pest Control in Jefferson City since 1986, according to his profile on the state Senate website.

With little discussion during the Senate General Laws Committee hearing, representatives from multiple organizations, including the Missouri Chamber of Commerce and Industry, voiced their support for the bill.

Peter Mueser, a chancellor’s professor for the University of Missouri-Columbia’s economics and government and public affairs departments, said in an interview that the idea is that if the unemployment rate is low, there are more jobs available, so people should require less time to find a job.

“Although shortening the unemployment eligibility period causes people to search more actively for employment and thus shorten the time it takes them, there’s still people who take quite a bit of time to get a job. And they suffer loss of income that is fairly dramatic over that period,” Mueser said.

He said older workers and those who have specialized skills would have a harder time finding employment that matches their skills in the eight week period.

Jake Hummel, the president of the Missouri AFL-CIO, was the only person to testify against the bill at the hearing. He told The Star that unemployment benefits are supposed to be a safety net, and if they take that net away, people will start to not be able to meet their basic needs.

“If we take that safety net out, we’re going to ensure that we’re going to put people in poverty a lot faster,” Hummel said.

People have to find jobs that pay enough to support their families, not just take any job available, Hummel said.

“It would also cause people to start looking at other states to go to get employed, so we could lose a lot of our skilled workers who are going to feed their family at the end of the day,” Sen. Doug Beck, a St. Louis Democrat, said in an interview. “They’re going to do whatever they can, and they may leave the state. And they may not come back.”

Beck said that he has been laid off before and being unemployed can become a mental struggle when someone is not able to support their family.

“You’re concerned about where you’re making your mortgage payment, if you have any prescriptions, trying to get those. What are you going to do about food? All these other things that go through your mind,” Beck said.