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Suit calls for return of $300 jobless aid

Governor exceeded authority, it says by John Lynch | July 25, 2021 at 12:00 a.m.
In this July 15, 2021, file photo, Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson speaks during a town hall meeting in Texarkana, Ark. Facing growing vaccine hesitancy, governors in states hard hit by the coronavirus pandemic are asking federal regulators to grant full approval to the shots in the hope that will persuade more people to get them. The governors of Arkansas and Ohio have appealed in recent days for full approval as virus cases and hospitalizations skyrocket in their states. (Kelsi Brinkmeyer/The Texarkana Gazette via AP, File)

Gov. Asa Hutchinson overstepped his authority when he ended federally funded pandemic unemployment supplements that can pay out-of-work job seekers an extra $300 a week, according to a lawsuit filed Friday that calls on Pulaski County Circuit Judge Herb Wright to order the payments to resume.

The Republican governor's decision to withdraw Arkansas last month from federal unemployment payments established as a response to pandemic-related joblessness cut off 68,853 Arkansas residents from "life-sustaining benefits for which they otherwise qualified," according to the 19-page lawsuit filed by Legal Aid attorneys Kevin De Liban, Jaden Atkins, Nikki Clark, Christina Cole and Victoria Frazier on behalf of five unemployed people.

Of that number, 48,496, about 70%, lost all benefits while the remaining 20,357 continued to receive standard unemployment but lost the weekly $300 supplement, according to the suit.

Warning that their clients' health is at risk, the lawyers want the judge to order the state to take all actions necessary to rejoin the program and seek any possible retroactive benefits that their clients might be entitled to receive.

"The plaintiffs have lost vital benefits and, as a result, have had to abandon apartments to avoid eviction, move in with family members or get roommates, miss bill payments, incur overdraft bank fees, apply for utility assistance, go to food pantries, use credit cards to pay bills, accrue interest on the credit card payments, and face certain inability to pay future bills. This constitutes irreparable harm," the suit states.

The benefits derive from Social Security through three programs: Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation and Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation. Hutchinson made Arkansas drop out while another 10 weeks of benefits were available.

The lawsuit accuses Hutchinson of illegally terminating the program June 26 under the standards set by Arkansas Code 11-10-312, which requires the government to "cooperate with the United States Department of Labor to the fullest extent" on unemployment benefits.

The litigation further states that Hutchinson's decision violated the separation-of-powers doctrine of the state constitution because the 11-10-312 statute restricts Hutchinson's authority to control unemployment benefits, which are managed by the Division of Workforce Services.

"Through the enactment [the law], the Arkansas General Assembly mandated that the executive branch take all action needed to participate fully in federal unemployment programs and limited the executive branch's discretion to act otherwise," the suit states.

Hutchinson announced the end of the supplemental payments in May, giving a month's notice to unemployment recipients. In a letter to Charisse Childers, Workforce Services director, the governor described Arkansas' economy as being in rapid rebound, with state revenue rising higher than predictions and businesses expanding. He said the extra payments were actually causing employers to have a difficult time finding willing workers.

"At this point in our economic recovery, I have confidence that the extraordinary federal unemployment measures that have been put in place for over a year have accomplished their purposes," he wrote. "Continuing these programs ... is not necessary and actually interferes with the ability of employers to fill over 40,000 job vacancies in Arkansas. In order to safeguard the progress that we are making, we must return our state unemployment system to normal functioning."

The plaintiffs are five unemployed residents who have been looking for work but can't find it, according to the suit.

Logan Armstrong, 24, of White County hasn't been able to find work since he was laid off from a sandblaster job in March 2020. He was receiving $751 per week but now cannot afford his medication.

Emily Ball, a 32-year-old Woodruff County resident, lost her housekeeping job in February 2020 because of her client's susceptibility to the coronavirus. She was getting $432 weekly until the program ended.

Unable to find another housekeeping position and turned down for jobs at gas stations and grocery stores, Ball and her boyfriend have had to move into her mother's two-bedroom home to make ends meet, rely on food pantries because they can't afford groceries, and Ball is overdrawn at the bank and behind on her water and electric bills.

Father of four Ronald Bates, 56, of Benton County, who has a disabled adult son, has been jobless since he was laid off in March 2020 because of pandemic-related downsizing at the factory where he worked as an assembler. He was collecting $544 weekly, and while he's received help once for his utility bill, Bates doesn't think he can pay his next bill. He's used up all of the assistance he's entitled to from food banks and cannot afford enough food for his family.

Cynthia Eyiuche, 63, of Pulaski County had been collecting $432 per week because she was unable to keep working at selling clothing and jewelry at markets and festivals around the state because of pandemic cancellations. Even with the resumption of these activities, Eyiuche has been unable to make up the lost income because attendance has fallen off, even after expanding her efforts to sell her wares at flea markets. She's not able to pay her mortgage and has been forced to use her credit cards to make ends meet, resulting in increasing debt.

Guitar teacher Kurt Johnsen, 63, of Benton County has lost most of his students because of fears of covid exposure. Collecting $432 weekly, Johnsen tried virtual teaching and made other efforts to retain students and attract new ones. He is struggling to pay his rent and other monthly bills, which include credit-card debt he has built up as he tried to keep up with his bills.

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