State cut staff before surge in jobless claims

By The Associated Press

ST. LOUIS (AP) — The Missouri agency that handles unemployment claims saw its staffing slashed by nearly 40% in recent years before this spring's surge in claims amid the coronavirus pandemic strained the system.

Emails obtained by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch through a Sunshine request show that Missouri’s unemployment office was overwhelmed by tens of thousands of daily phone calls, scrambled to get its online system back up after outages and was forced to pull in workers from other departments to handle the volume.

The emails among top officials at the Missouri Division of Employment Security show that at least 120,000 calls went unanswered on each of two days in April.

Budget summaries show that staffing at the Division of Employment Security fell to 398 full-time workers last year from 645 in 2013.

“I truly think they allowed staffing to go down and did not plan for the future,” said Gracia Backer, a former Democratic legislator who led the unemployment division during Gov. Bob Holden’s administration and also during the Great Recession.

Despite the problems, Missouri ranked better than the national average in how quickly it made initial payments to claimants in April, May and June, according to an analysis of federal data by the Century Foundation, a progressive think tank that studies unemployment systems.

Gov. Mike Parson said the state moved quickly to boost staffing temporarily, with the division hiring over 100 full-time equivalents in the first half of the year, according to the budget documents.