Minnesota Attorney General Sides with Students: DEED is Wrong

The following column appeared originally in a number of APG of East Central Minnesota newspapers, including the Morrison County Record.

 

Minnesota AG sides with students: DEED is wrong

 

Here’s potentially very good news for Minnesota high school students who were laid off due to COVID-19. Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison has told the Minnesota Court of Appeals that the Minnesota Department of Economic Development is wrong. He believes laid-off young people should be paid unemployment insurance from federal funds that are available. Moreover, authorities urge high school students who lost their jobs to apply for unemployment insurance by Dec. 25.

 

Attorney General Keith Ellison (in white shirt, center) meets with students, educators and community leaders to help reduce homelessness

Hayat Muse, a high school student in Blaine, lost her job because of COVID-19, was denied unemployment benefits and is part of the lawsuit. She wrote to me: “It was obviously very encouraging to hear that the attorney general agrees and believes in our case. Hearing someone so accomplished, respected and powerful stand with us shows that our case has great promise.”

To students, Muse suggests: “I would say there is no age requirement for having your voice matter and heard, so speak out and let others know what matters to you and I guarantee those much older than you will begin to listen and take note.”

Here’s an urgent request from Matt Norris, the point person at Youthprise, a statewide group that, with high school students, brought this issue to the Minnesota Court of Appeals. Norris wrote in a Nov. 17 email: “High school students who lost their employment because of COVID-19 should apply for unemployment insurance via DEED’s website before Dec. 25. This is how they can be sure to preserve their claim to PUA (Pandemic Unemployment Assistance) benefits if the court case is successful. If they have previously applied since the start of the pandemic, they do not need to do so again.” Application information is here.

Norris continued: “Students should understand their application will likely be denied because DEED is continuing to operate under its current interpretation until the court case is resolved. If a student does end up receiving payment, we recommend that they do not spend the money unless the court case is resolved in our favor to avoid having to repay it.”

Ellison was very clear with the Minnesota Court of Appeals. He’s filed a brief discussing the federal CARES Act, which included millions of Pandemic Unemployment Assistance funds to pay unemployment insurance. Ellison insists, in bold, capital letters:

“THE CARES ACT CLEARLY AND UNAMBIGUOUSLY PERMITS ELIGIBLE HIGH SCHOOL STUDENTS TO RECEIVE BENEFITS PURSUANT TO THE PUA PROGRAM.”

Ellison’s brief continues: “The plain text of the CARES Act covers Minnesotans who are otherwise ineligible. The will and intent of Congress is clear. The plain language of the CARES Act, as well as guidance and instruction issued by the DOL make clear that the PUA program was intended to be a benefit of last resort for individuals whose work was disrupted by the pandemic, and who are otherwise ineligible for lost-income benefits. High school students who lose their jobs due to COVID-19, and who do not qualify for state unemployment benefits under state law, are precisely the type of worker that the PUA program was intended to benefit.”

DEED disagrees. It told the court that, among other things, the federal law is ambiguous.

Curt Johnson, of Edina, formerly Gov. Arne Carlson’s chief of staff, told me: “I tend to think that the Attorney General would research the position carefully. I think the Attorney General would not be on the wrong side of the law.”

Ellison recognizes that “Minnesota high school students represent an important source of economic stability for themselves and their families.”

Youthprise President Wokie Weah wrote: “Youthprise is pleased that the Attorney General recognizes the importance of supporting young workers during this pandemic.”

Attorney Scott Simmons, who lives in Brooklyn Park, also agrees. Simmons has a daughter in high school who was denied unemployment benefits. Referring as Ellison does to the federal law, Simmons wrote: “It’s not clear to me why the state seems unable to simply read the law and follow it.”

I agree. I hope affected students will file for unemployment insurance. And I urge the Court of Appeals to affirm the attorney general and students.

Joe Nathan, formerly a Minnesota public school educator and PTA president directs the Center for School Change. Reactions welcome at Joe@centerforschoolchange.org