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Your Money: Unemployed Missourians want legal help to reinstate federal unemployment

Several states have already filed lawsuits to bring back the federal assistance of $300 a week, saying states have a duty to provide federal benefits

ST. LOUIS — Many Missourians have been worried about the day when federal unemployment and eviction protections are no longer available. Now that the day is here, several of the state's unemployed worry they'll be homeless in the coming days.

Missouri was the first to cut off federal unemployment in mid-June because Gov. Mike Parson said it would encourage people to get back into the workforce. Many economists say it's not that simple. The COVID-19 pandemic makes it difficult for some people to return because of health issues or caregiving.

Theresa Barnes said she wants to work, but she's just not able to right now. She spent the last 20 years as a newborn and child portrait photographer. 

"My work life has been relatively nonexistent," Barnes said. She said no one wanted her in their homes, and she did not want to be in anyone's home since two of her family members have health issues.

Barnes is also a domestic violence survivor and in recent years, had a hard time securing safe housing. She says federal unemployment assistance was a lifeline. 

"When I did file unemployment, I started getting payments right away," she said.

However, she and thousands of other Missourians lost their benefits when Parson, a Republican, said the state would no longer accept those federal dollars, which amounted to $300 a week.

"Continuing these programs only worsens the workforce issues we are currently facing," Parson said in June. "It's time that we end these programs that have incentivized people to stay out of the workforce."

Jim Guest with Legal Services of Eastern Missouri in St. Louis said ending the program was not only was it disappointing, the reasons why are also likely inaccurate. 

"In the states where this has happened, there has not been any evidence that it has induced some sort of mass return to the workforce," said Guest. "That just hasn't happened. Even states have filed lawsuits against their governors and against the states."

At least seven states have filed suit. Two of them — Indiana and Maryland — have even had to reinstate benefits, claiming that states have a duty to provide federal aid to the people.

Barnes is now part of a growing group of people searching for legal help to take on Missouri.

"We're really trying to find somebody who can pick this up for us," Barnes said.

She and dozens of members of a Facebook group claim to have called more than 200 attorneys, including the ACLU, the Arch City Defenders, Legal Services of Eastern and Western Missouri, and attorneys from other states that have sued their governors.

"We've just been non-stop making calls, turning in forms and talking to attorneys," Barnes said.

Guest said Legal Services of Eastern Missouri is considering making a move.

"We are considering it every day," said Guest. "We are talking with our partners throughout the state, other legal aid organizations and other advocacy organizations. We want to make sure that we are all coordinated on this."

While interest seems to be strengthening, many are worried about running out of time. 

Barnes is going back to school to switch careers, applying for jobs, and picking up some temporary work, but it's not enough. She says she's been snubbed online for various reasons, and she has to weigh low-wage jobs with her family's health.

"I mean, we're gonna be back to a homeless situation," said Barnes. "I don't have any answers right now."

Despite these efforts, federal jobless benefits are set to expire across the country on Sept. 6.

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