A new system for distributing unemployment benefits to out of work Missourians went into effect in July. And that system is now coming under fire from some people who have lost their jobs and from others who are simply concerned about what they see as problems associated with the new system.

It’s a system that requires Missourians who claim benefits to be automatically enrolled in a debit card program administered by the Department of Labor and Industrial Relations’ Division of Employment Security in conjunction with Central Bank. Claimants may exercise the right to opt out of the debit card program and have payments sent directly to their bank accounts, but critics claim the option must be exercised within seven days of filing initial claims. That claim is disputed by the Department of Labor.

Maria Williamson, a Fenton auto worker who was laid off, doesn’t like the debit card system and insists she was not fully informed. "I didn’t know anything about this until the day I received the card in the mail," says Williamson, "And then that following Monday when I called the unemployment office, that is when I was told it was not an option for me. It was done. I was in the system under this debit."

Delays are a concern for Darin Gilley, president of a UAW local in a shop that supplies auto parts for vans. "I’ve had numerous members who have been affected by this recently," says Gilley, "And there’s a lot of complaints from them about both the fees and also the fact that it seems like their cards are not being loaded or having their accounts – have their money deposited in their accounts."

State Representative Rachel Storch (D-St. Louis) finds the new system cumbersome and somewhat confusing. Says Storch: "If you’re savvy enough to figure out that you have seven to ten days to opt out of this you can choose to have direct deposit to you own bank. But that requires that you go on line, print out the appropriate forms, mail them into the Department of Labor – to Employment Security, and they put you back onto direct deposit … otherwise you will be receiving the debit card."

The Department defends the new program, saying it provides improved security and service. It adds the new program will save taxpayers $643,762 a year. As for the specific compaints regarding the option to opt out and the fees charged, Labor Department spokesperson Daisy Olivo tries to put minds at ease.

"You now have the option," says Olivo, "Of either choosing to receive your UI benefits via the debit card or direct deposit." She acknowledges there was initially a seven day period in which claimants had to choose to receive money through direct deposit or on the debit card, but that seven day period has been waived and claimants can request direct deposit at any time.

On the concern regarding fees, Olivo makes it clear there is no need to pay charges or fees: "Funds can be obtained free via these debit cards at any MasterCard member bank location by using a teller. That would be at approximately 3,000 locations in the State of Missouri." Olivo adds debit cards are also accepted at thousands of retail establishments throughout the state, with the ability to receive cash back from purchases – at no charge.

Download/Listen: Steve Walsh report (:60 MP3)