Missouri unemployment numbers don’t tell the whole story

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Missouri’s unemployment rate fell to 4.9 percent this month with number of jobless residents receiving unemployment benefits cliff-diving from 266,000 in early May to 54,000 in October.

But those numbers don’t tell the whole story. In fact, according to state and federal data, those numbers only tell one of four stories that, when the jobless numbers are added together, indicate about 160,000 Missourians have lost jobs since March and remain unemployed.

While more than 54,000 remain on state unemployment, 48,000 Missourians have exhausted their 20 weeks of state unemployment benefits and are receiving 13 weeks of $600 weekly unemployment assistance through the federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation (FPUC) program (if they lost jobs before July 31) or the three weeks of $300 weekly unemployment payout through the Lost Wages Assistance (LWA) program authorized by the Trump administration in August.

There are as many as 8,000 self-employed Missourians not eligible for state unemployment still receiving federal benefits and eligible to continue to receive them through year’s end. Around 60,000 state residents were receiving the benefit in mid-July.

But, according to the Missouri Division of Employment Security and the U.S. Bureau of Labor, the biggest decline in Missouri’s unemployment numbers can be attributed to jobless people simply no longer looking for work.

About 70,000 people have dropped out of Missouri’s labor force, including many who have exhausted start and federal unemployment benefits.

All the numbers combined add up to about 160,000, although there is likely some duplication in combining the state and two federal unemployment numbers.

WalletHub, the personal finance website, estimated in early October that there were 127,907 unemployed workers in Missouri in September, about 46,000, or 55.9 percent, more than the 82,035 Missourians who were jobless in September 2019.

That would actually be less unemployed than in January, before the pandemic emerged in March, when WalletHub estimated there were 132,261 jobless workers in the state.

That’s a 3.3 percent reduction in the number of unemployed workers over that nine-month period, ranking Missouri first in the nation in job gain percentage this year.

Gov. Mike Parson said 62 percent of Missourians laid off or furloughed because of the pandemic this spring have returned to their jobs. That would place the number of those who lost their jobs at about 115,000.

Parson, the Republican incumbent facing Democratic challenger and state Auditor Nicole Galloway, said Missouri employers are hiring.

“There’s a lot of people looking for employees right now,” he said last week. “It’s a good time to come off of there and with the job market that’s out there, a lot of people can go straight back to work.”

Under Parson and his Republican predecessors, however, the Missouri Division of Employment Security (DES) was poorly prepared to handle the pandemic fostered a surge in claims.

Since 2013, the agency’s funding and staffing have been slashed by 40 percent, from 645 full-time employees in 2013 to 398 this year.

Emails obtained by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch through a public information request indicate the understaffed agency battled through computer system failures and needed to draw workers from other state agencies to handle the volume of claims.

During a two-day span in April, more than 120,000 phone calls to DES went answers, according to emails among state officials.

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