Laid-Off Minnesota High School Students Entitled to CARES Act Benefits, Court Rules

(AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

ST. PAUL, Minn. (CN) — The Minnesota Court of Appeals ruled Tuesday night that high school students laid off due to the Covid-19 pandemic can access unemployment benefits.

In its brief ruling in favor of Minneapolis youth advocacy group Youthprise and three high school students laid off during the pandemic, the court found that an unemployment law judge incorrectly determined that high school students were not covered under the federal CARES Act. That judge’s decision was based upon the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development’s interpretation of a 1939 state law that prevents students from collecting unemployment.

The decision opens up between $14 million and $28 million of Pandemic Unemployment Assistance to young Minnesotans made poorer by the ongoing global health crisis, according to Youthprise Vice President Marcus Pope. Youthprise and Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison’s office worked to fast-track the case, Pope said, so that laid-off teenagers could apply for unemployment under the act before its Dec. 25 deadline.

The students’ case was bolstered by an amicus brief from Ellison’s office, which argued that the CARES Act was specifically targeted to reach those who normally would not have been eligible for unemployment benefits. 

“The act does not include any age restriction for those who qualify, and the [Department of Labor] specifically indicated that full-time students can be eligible to receive benefits. The DOL has also instructed states that applicants who have been disqualified for state unemployment compensation, even for instances of fraud, can remain eligible to collect PUA benefits,” the brief states. “A high school student, like relator, who was furloughed from her job as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, and is not eligible for any other unemployment benefits, is precisely the type of individual the PUA program was intended to benefit.”

Pope praised the attorney general’s office for its cooperation. “I just want to give a huge shout-out to our attorney general and his entire office for standing up for young people and being courageous,” he said.

Lincoln Bacal, a 17-year-old recent high school graduate who was laid off from her job at a local ice cream chain in March, was lead plaintiff in the case. While pleased with the decision, she emphasized that there is a long way to go. Bacal said Youthprise and a youth coalition she co-founded successfully won many legislators over to their cause, but other legislators and adult commentators sought to minimize their issues by referring to their lost wages as “pocket money.” She has had to postpone college for a year after losing her income, she said.

“I pay my taxes, and so do other high school students,” she said. “Working on this in the last eight months has really exposed that a lot of people in power do not prioritize youth issues. … If we don’t have the power to vote them out, then we’re not important, and they don’t prioritize our needs at all.

“For any other demographic, we wouldn’t have needed a lawsuit,” she added. 

The 1939 law remains in place, but Pope and Bacal both vowed to continue efforts to repeal it. The lawsuit, Pope said, was a last resort after lengthy efforts to lobby the state legislature to repeal the law entirely.

“We tried, we worked with the Senate and the House to get bills introduced to fix this, without success,” he said. “With the gridlock that we’ve been experiencing, it’s just been hard to get anything done.”

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