Will justice for Mn High School students be denied or granted?

The following column appeared during July, 2020 in a number of APG of East Central Minnesota newspapers, including the Forest Lake Times

Will justice for high school students be denied or granted?


By Joe Nathan

Economic justice and fairness for thousands of Minnesota high school students has been delayed. Perhaps, if legislators agree, it will be granted this summer. In less than five minutes, you can help.

Fortunately, thousands of adult Minnesotans who had been working and laid off because of COVID-19 have received unemployment benefits.

Unfortunately, though they have been working on this since March, suburban, rural and urban high school students, many of whom used wages to pay basic family expenses such as rent, heat and food, still are being denied unemployment benefits. This, despite DFL and Republican legislators, Gov. Tim Walz and DEED Commissioner Steve Grove agreeing their cause is just.

On a June 24 phone conversation, DEED Commissioner Steve Grove told me, “If you are old enough to work, then you should be eligible for unemployment benefits, just like everyone else in the labor market.” He praised the “strong impassioned advocates.” He acknowledged that for many students “these are not just recreational jobs — these are important for family finances.”

Republicans and Democrats introduced bills to help these youngsters. They would suspend a 1939 law so that students who lost jobs because of COVID-19 would be allowed to receive unemployment compensation from mid-March through Dec. 31, 2020. (Currently full-time high school students can’t receive unemployment compensation.)

Bill authors included, for example, Republican Jeremy Miller, Minnesota Senate president, from Winona, as well as Rep. Melissa Halvorson Wiklund, from Bloomington, and Sen. Steve Cwodzinski, DFL-Eden Prairie. Children’s Defense Fund-Minnesota, Youthprise and other groups are supporting the students.

DEED has played a mixed role. Despite Grove’s endorsement for students’ requests, Jim Hegman, DEED’s unemployment insurance director, did not express support for the students during June 11 testimony to a Senate committee. Despite the student group asking only that high school students whose employers paid into the unemployment system be eligible for payments, Hegman noted that DEED had received a request for unemployment insurance from a 10-year-old. He suggested, without offering evidence, that making high school students eligible for unemployment compensation could produce a “different kind of mischief.”

Marcus Pope, vice president of Youthprise, a statewide organization, has pointed out that Iowa, Wisconsin, North Dakota and South Dakota “allow high school students to receive some unemployment benefits, state or federal, during this current pandemic. … Our young workers, who live in every corner of the state, should not have to move … to be treated equitably.”

He also noted, “This is a critically important equity issue because our state’s young workers are the lowest paid and represent our most racially and ethnically diverse cohort of workers.” (Read Pope’s article on LinkedIn at tinyurl.com/lawmakers-should-ensure.)

Andrew Stettner, senior fellow at the Century Foundation, Washington, D.C., has been advising the students. He told me that Minnesota can apply for federal Pandemic Unemployment Assistance to pay unemployment for students. “It’s over and above federal funds already allocated to Minnesota.” Stettner explained: “Minnesota can compensate these students and be reimbursed. … These funds are explicitly designed to serve people who are not eligible under current state law.” These federal funds would not come from Minnesota unemployment insurance pool, so they could be a great source of paying students.

Yet, during the regular legislative session, and during the special session, there was no deal. Justice was delayed.

Walter Cortina, 17, one of the student leaders, has provided major support for his family finances for more than three years. He was laid off because of the novel coronavirus. Walter told me he’s learned since March that “politicians don’t always do what’s best for the people.”

Grove pointed out that, as is often true with legislation, “the devil is in the details.” Agreed.

But Iowa, North and South Dakota and Wisconsin have worked out details. Shouldn’t we?

Would you please write me if you are willing to contact legislators to support the students? I’ll share your interest with the students.

Students have earned unemployment insurance. It’s been delayed. But with your help, it won’t be denied.

Joe Nathan, a former Minnesota public school teacher, administrator and PTA parent, directs the Center for School Change. Reactions are welcome at joe@centerforschoolchange.org