Unemployed argue state must accept extra benefits

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Unemployed Hoosiers are using what they believe is a mandate in Indiana law to challenge the state’s decision to end the federal extended unemployment benefits, possibly making them the first and only to file a lawsuit to have the extra assistance reinstated.

“The unique provision requires the state to go after the funds the federal government makes available,” Jeffrey Macey, partner at Macey Swanson Hicks & Sauer LLP, said. “Indiana has to take it.”

Filed in Marion Superior Court by Indiana Legal Services in conjunction with Macey’s firm, the lawsuit — T.L. et al. v. Eric Holcomb, et al., 49D11-2106-PL-020140 — is seeking an injunction to enjoin the state from cutting off the additional money being provided to households that lost their jobs because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The plaintiffs filed a motion for a preliminary injunction and the court has scheduled an emergency hearing for June 23, four days after the enhanced benefits are scheduled to stop.

ILS is representing five individual plaintiffs who lost their jobs when the coronavirus shuttered the economy and are now struggling to reenter the workforce. They are having to overcome obstacles like chronic health conditions, lack of affordable child care and housing instability. Macey Swanson is representing the Concerned Clergy of Indianapolis, a charitable organization that is expecting a “significant increase” in requests for help with housing, food and health care if the benefits are suspended.

The complaint rests on Indiana Code § 22-4-37-1, which the plaintiffs argue charges Indiana with the responsibility of securing “all the rights and benefits” offered under certain federal statutes including 42 U.S.C. §§ 1101, 1104 and 1105. Moreover, they claim their contention is bolstered by the Legislature’s “explicit mandate” that combating economic insecurity should be the basis for interpreting the laws about unemployment insurance.

Both Macey and co-counsel ILS attorney Jennifer Terry stated simply that under the statute, Indiana has no option but to continue accepting the enhanced unemployment benefits for as long as they are offered. This is a law that apparently no other state has in its code.

Macey further asserted that to his knowledge, this is the first and only lawsuit in the country that has been filed specifically to prevent the flow of extra jobless payments from being stopped.

Commenting on the legal action, Gov. Eric Holcomb maintained in a statement that Indiana is acting within the law.

“The Department of Workforce Development worked with the U.S. Department of Labor to properly complete all required steps to end its participation in federally funded pandemic unemployment insurance programs this month,” Holcomb said. “DWD has timely notified impacted claimants about the state’s withdrawal from the federal programs and continues to connect impacted Hoosiers with the resources they need to gain skills and be matched with employment.”

‘Significant hardship’

Indiana is one of 25 states that has decided to terminate the enhanced benefits even though Congress has authorized the extra $300 per week to continue through Sept. 6. In announcing the state would no longer be including the federal money in the unemployment payments after June 19, Holcomb said Indiana’s economy is “roaring like an Indy 500 race car” and those who need a job now have a “myriad of work options.”

However, ILS disputed the rosy economic picture. The legal aid provider noted some counties, like Marion and Lake, are recording higher-than-average unemployment rates.

Also, the agency highlighted a report by The Century Foundation, which found that the benefits would impact more than 286,000 Hoosiers and result in the state losing $1.5 billion that would have been spent locally on living expenses like rent, utilities, groceries and transportation.

Terry, an attorney with nearly 20 years of experience in employment law, is one of more than 12 lawyers ILS has working in offices around the state who are focused on helping individuals navigate and overcome any obstacles to receiving their unemployment benefits. The work, she said, has underscored that the decision to “prematurely terminate” the federal benefits will create a “significant hardship” for the legal aid clients.

“For the clients that we represent, (the extended benefits) have really been a lifeline that has sustained them during the pandemic,” Terry said.

Since the lawsuit was filed, Macey said his office has been overwhelmed with phone calls from people in and outside of Indiana looking for help on what to do if the extra funds are cut.

“I’ve never seen anything like it,” he said about the number of phone calls. “People are really concerned about this. A lot of people are going to be impacted in a harmful way if they lose these benefits.”•

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