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Local bus drivers seek help as the state comes after them after it wrongfully paid them unemployment money

By Jenna Rae

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    HAZELWOOD, Missouri (KMOV) — News 4 Investigates has reported on Missouri asking for its money back after overpaying people for unemployment during the height of the pandemic. It’s affected thousands of Missourians, and now, it’s hitting close to home. Several local school bus drivers said the state is now knocking at their doors for money they spent while out of work.

News 4 talked with three Hazelwood School District bus drivers who wanted to remain anonymous. We’ll refer to them in this story as Driver 1, Driver 2 and Driver 3.

“Starting March, when the pandemic hit, we were told we were not gonna be able to return to work due to COVID. They were shutting everything down,” Driver 1 said.

Driving for Hazelwood is Driver 1 and 2′s only job and source of income. When they stopped transporting students as school shut down, they said Hazelwood paid them for a period of time.

“Hazelwood paid us up until the last day of school,” Driver 1 said.

On May 29, 2020, dozens of Hazelwood school bus drivers filed for unemployment with the state of Missouri after school leaders sent a letter to drivers telling them they wouldn’t protest any unemployment claims. This letter meant they were allowed to file for unemployment.

All three drivers said they got paid from that day in May until school started back up in August 2020.

“I needed it so I could survive,” Driver 1 said.

Dozens of drivers said they received federal and state unemployment payments weekly through August 2020. However, in September 2020, is when things started shifting.

“I started receiving letters back from them [the state] saying that I owe $10,200,” Driver 2 said.

“I been made to pay $2,800. It first started at $9,000,” Driver 1 said.

“The state is telling me that, I think, I owed about $900,” Driver 3 said.

These Hazelwood drivers said they appealed the claims with the Missouri Department of Labor and Industrial Relations several times. Letters the state sent to them said “it was determined employees were overpaid because they were paid during a period of disqualification.” In that same letter to one bus driver, the state said the payment was made “due to no fault of her own as this was a period of disqualification.”

All three drivers applied for unemployment in May and were approved by the state. The state admitted those payments were an overpayment and a mistake. Now, these drivers said the state is withholding tax returns and threatening credit scores.

“I don’t think it’s right that we have to pay something back that they told us to go ahead and receive because it was a pandemic,” Driver 2 said.

All three drivers said they feel like the state took advantage of them.

“I was really upset because what was I gonna do? Not be able to pay my bills? Me and my kids be homeless? No lights, no food?,” Driver 1 said.

State lawmakers tried to reverse the state’s collection last legislative session and failed. Now, South County State Sen. Doug Beck is trying again.

“What we’re trying to do is make them right again and stop the garnishments,” Beck explained.

Beck filed Senate Bill 709 to ensure Missourians, like these Hazelwood bus drivers, don’t owe the state a dime.

“It’s a shame. They drive our kids. For the most part, they keep our kids safe and they’re doing this, again, just to make ends meet. The state Department of Unemployment has handled this whole unemployment process horribly. It’s been handled very poorly,” Beck said.

We asked Hazelwood School District leaders if they were working to help their employees and mitigate these overpayments. They have not responded to News 4′s request for comment.

We also reached out to Missouri Gov. Mike Parson’s office to get his stance on the issue and if he’ll be helping Missourians forgo this overpayment debt. They did not respond.

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