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Cuts in unemployment staff left Missouri unready for COVID-19 surge

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 of 2008 and the years after.

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, a Republic, said the state had moved quickly to boost staffing temporarily, with the division hiring more than 100 full-time equivalents in the first half of the year, according to the budget documents.

On Saturday, Missouri reported 2,918 new cases of COVID-19, and 113 additional deaths. Since the onset of the pandemic, Missouri has recorded 167,452 cases and 2,801 deaths. According to a statement from the department, the data is “not solely reflective of what has occurred in Missouri in the past 24 hours.”

The city of St. Louis has racked up a total of 8,102 confirmed cases, with another 129 suspected cases; the death toll has reached 211.

Meanwhile, prison officials in Missouri, unlike those in other states, are not releasing any detailed information about inmates or staff who die of the coronavirus.

With seven deaths among inmates and employees since the pandemic began, the Missouri Department of Corrections is declining to provide basic identification of the deceased, such as which prison, an age or age range, criminal convictions and sentences.

“In the interest of protecting privacy and confidential medical information, we aren’t publicly releasing identifying information [including locations of] offenders or staff members who have died after testing positive for COVID-19. All information is reported to local and state health departments,” Corrections spokeswoman Karen Pojmann said.

Pojmann did not respond to a request for additional information about the department’s decision, including a citation of statute that would preclude the release of basic locational information about deceased inmates and staff.

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