Rotunda at the Idaho State Capitol building on March 23, 2021. (Otto Kitsinger for Idaho Capital Sun)
Two Idahoans who were receiving unemployment benefits during the pandemic have filed a lawsuit against Idaho Gov. Brad Little and Idaho Department of Labor Director Jani Revier for allegedly violating their statutory obligations by ending federal pandemic employment benefits in June.
The complaint was filed on Aug. 20 by attorneys with Idaho Legal Aid Services, Howard Belodoff and Martin Hendrickson, on behalf of two plaintiffs identified only as A.E. and K.S. to protect their identities and medical information, according to the documents.
Little announced Idaho would no longer participate in federal pandemic unemployment compensation programs in May, citing the programs as one reason employers across the state are struggling to fill jobs. The benefits included an additional $300 weekly for claimants, assistance for those who do not usually qualify for unemployment — such as the self-employed — and an extension of the maximum number of weeks a claimant can file.
According to federal law, the benefits are available from the federal government until Sept. 6. As of early August, 25 states including Idaho had ended the extra benefits in June or July.
More than 14,000 Idahoans were receiving benefits prior to the cutoff, the complaint states, and the benefits served as a “vital lifeline” for thousands of Idahoans during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“By prematurely terminating the state’s administration of these benefits, the state has violated the Legislature’s directive to maximize unemployment insurance benefits available to eligible Idaho residents who lost their employment through no fault of their own,” the complaint states.
Georgia Smith, spokesperson for the Idaho Department of Labor, told the Idaho Capital Sun the department does not comment on pending litigation matters.
Emily Callihan, Little’s communications director, said the governor’s office does not comment on pending litigation.
Two Idahoans say they have to rely on other state assistance in lieu of benefits
The plaintiffs are both in their 30s, according to the complaint. A.E., a resident of Salmon, worked for a construction company for about a year before being laid off as a result of the pandemic. With the extra unemployment assistance and maximum weekly filing extension, he was receiving $450 per week, but was unable to find suitable employment despite actively seeking work, the documents state. He recently accepted an offer, but the job does not start until October, and he has relied on his father to allow him to live in his RV rent-free until then.
A.E. has also been relying on food stamp assistance and Medicaid since he has no unemployment benefits and has high blood pressure and diabetes. The complaint states he was unable to pay for his insulin and purchase food to control his diabetes after the benefits were terminated.
“Plaintiff A.E. has limited employment options because he needs to protect himself from unvaccinated and maskless persons who may have the COVID-19 virus due to his diabetes,” the complaint reads. His father, who is elderly, also has diabetes.
K.S., a Meridian resident, was laid off from the job he had held for four months in March 2020 and also benefited from the extension of weeks provided by the federal assistance, according to the complaint. After the benefits were terminated by the state in June, the complaint says, K.S. has no sources of income. He also has Crohn’s Disease, according to the documents, which causes inflammation of the digestive tract and requires regular doctor appointments and X-rays. K.S. enrolled in Medicaid as well after he was laid off and lost his health insurance, the complaint stated.
Lawsuit comes after other state courts have ruled in favor of resuming benefitsThe complaint also states Little’s reason for ending the benefits is contradicted by a blog post written by an economist from the Idaho Department of Labor posted at the end of July stating labor shortages were common prior to the pandemic and the seasonally adjusted unemployment rate in April was less than a percentage point higher than the state’s all-time low of 2.6%.
Courts in Maryland, Arkansas and Oklahoma have recently ordered pandemic unemployment benefits to resume after similar lawsuits were filed, and other suits have been filed in Florida, Ohio and Texas.
“The state’s costs to administer and pay the … federal pandemic benefits are covered by CARES Act funding,” the Idaho complaint states. “Therefore, the state is neither harmed nor inconvenienced by the payment, reinstatement and continuation of all prematurely terminated CARES Act benefits until the Sept. 6, 2021, expiration.”
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