Minnesota High School Students Sue for Jobless Aid

(AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

ST. PAUL, Minn. (CN) — As the Covid-19 pandemic stretches on and another potential surge of unemployment relief crawls through the legislative process, a group of jobless Minnesota high school students filed a lawsuit Thursday asking why they can’t benefit from it.

The Minneapolis youth advocacy organization Youthprise and three high school students have sued state, seeking to allow high school students who worked part-time before the pandemic to collect unemployment insurance. Full-time high school students are currently precluded from collecting unemployment under a Minnesota law passed in 1939.

The federal CARES Act, which created the expanded unemployment checks that have helped keep many Americans afloat through historically high unemployment, allows high schoolers to collect those checks, but the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development, or DEED, has enforced the state law, according to the teens’ 12-page complaint.

That hurdle, attorney Gregory Merz of international firm Lathrop GPM argued in the complaint, deprives laid-off Minnesota students of a federally provided right.

“In denying these applicants benefits that they are entitled to under the federal [Pandemic Unemployment Assistance] program, DEED has acted under color of law to deprive the applicants of rights provided by federal law,” he wrote.

Merz cited the experiences of three named students who had worked part time at local coffee and ice cream shops before the pandemic and were laid off or had their hours drastically cut when stay-at-home orders went into effect. All three, the attorney wrote, had applied for benefits. Two had received them only for DEED to terminate them and, in one case, seek to claw back a portion of the benefits it had paid out. The other’s claim had been denied outright.

In an interview Thursday afternoon, Merz said the case struck him as fairly straightforward.

“We have a federal program that is designed to help people who fall through the cracks of the usual unemployment comp system,” including gig workers and independent contractors, he said. Those workers are receiving benefits, but high school-aged workers fall in a similar gap, he added.  

“It feels like it’s picking high school students out for a very unfair and burdensome consequence,” Merz said of the exception.

DEED Commissioner Steve Grove said in a statement that Minnesota lawmakers should consider loosening the restrictions on jobless aid.  

“While DEED has a responsibility to uphold the current law, we are strongly supportive of efforts to legislatively broaden the law to provide unemployment insurance benefits to Minnesota’s high school students who meet all of the other eligibility requirements in the unemployment insurance law,” he said.

Youthprise Vice President Marcus Pope said the lawsuit was a last resort for the organization and the youth it represents. Youthprise operates several programs and engages in advocacy for young Minnesotans and especially for young people of color, indigenous youth and those who are low-income. Since the beginning of the pandemic, Pope said, the organization has been pushing for youth unemployment benefits in the Minnesota Legislature and on the federal level, to no avail.

“We had bipartisan support, although Republicans and different Democrats had different ideas on how to fund benefits for young people,” Pope said in an interview.

Those disputes ultimately led the proposals to stagnate in the legislature, he said, and partisan gridlock in Congress foreclosed on that route too.

“It’s not like we just walked up and filed this lawsuit,” Pope said. “We’ve been trying to work with DEED, and the governor’s office and the legislature, since basically close to the beginning of the pandemic.”

He said the organization had gone so far as to send an advance copy of their complaint to Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison’s office to put the state on notice of their concerns and arguments.

Pope emphasized that the income at stake for the teens is “not just about pocket change.” One plaintiff, he said, had been working since the 8th grade to help pay rent. Another’s job at a local coffee and ice cream store had helped him pay rent and other bills since the 9th grade.

“When we talk about young workers, we’re talking about workers who are disproportionately people of color, and the youngest workers are also the lowest-paid workers,” Pope said. “It’s clearly an ageist policy, but also if you look at the demographic profile of the workers we’re talking about… you can clearly see that there’s some underlying racial issues with the stance of the state.”

He added that young workers also weren’t excluded from paying for state unemployment programs.

“These young people are paying into our state unemployment system – their employers are paying into the unemployment system on their behalf, just like every other worker, and they’re not getting the benefits,” he said.

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