Legal Aid sues state for data on jobless-aid denials

An organization representing poor Arkansans has sued the state agency charged with providing unemployment assistance, seeking public records to unearth why many of its clients have had trouble accessing the benefits.

Legal Aid of Arkansas' lawsuit in Pulaski County Circuit Court against the Arkansas Department of Commerce and its Division of Workforce Services came after the agency repeatedly refused to turn over records it maintains that Legal Aid says are available under the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act and are needed to "better understand the problems" of scores of its clients.

In addition to having trouble accessing claims, Legal Aid said its clients have endured "months-long application or appeals processing delays, wrongful denials, unsubstantiated allegations of fraud or overpaid benefits, lack of information about application procedures, and other related problems," according to the lawsuit, which landed before Circuit Judge Patricia James.

Legal Aid provides its services to a 31-county area in roughly the northern half of the state. Its sister organization, Center for Arkansas Legal Services, covers the remaining 44 counties.

The calls began coming into its offices after the pandemic-induced lockdowns that shuttered restaurants and other businesses sent unemployment skyrocketing. In April, the jobless rate shot up to 10.2%, more than double the March rate of 5%. Unemployment levels have fallen back, most recently to 4.2%.

But an attorney for Legal Aid said some of its clients have gone months without receiving unemployment assistance, and they are in danger of being evicted.

"Our clients are desperate to get unemployment to pay rent, eat, and keep the lights on," Legal Aid attorney Trevor Hawkins said in a news release. "Workforce has continued to make it hard on them, and we're trying to get to the bottom of it."

Legal Aid filed its first request for records under the state's version of the open records law on Oct. 13, seeking information about Workforce Services' "decision-making processes."

"After months of extended deadlines, evasive responses, and withheld documents, Legal Aid had no choice left but to sue," it said.

A Workforce Services spokeswoman said agency executives won't comment on the lawsuit.

"The Arkansas Division of Workforce Services does not comment on pending litigation," Zoe Caulkin said in an email. "We will review the Complaint and respond accordingly."

Legal Aid filed a second open-records request in December that is central to the litigation. It focuses on the work of a contractor, ProTech Solutions LLC, and the weekly and monthly status reports it generated for Workforce Services, as well as training materials involving the services it provides to the agency.

The request also sought "policies, directives, rules, business process documents, change requests or other material provided by DWS [Division of Workforce Services] to ProTech directing how [Pandemic Unemployment Assistance] eligibility determinations or recommendations are to be made.

Finally, Legal Aid wants all public records, including communications by agency employees since last March containing the words "algo" or "algorithm" or their plural forms.

ProTech has a contract with Workforce Services to provide an online application process for Arkansans to apply for assistance. Eligibility is determined through ProTech's algorithm.

According to the lawsuit, Workforce Services has cited "an ongoing federal investigation" into a "recent data security incident" in not releasing some of the information. The lawsuit says the investigation wasn't described as criminal, which would shield pertinent data from being released under the open-records law.

A hearing must be scheduled within seven days of a petition for relief under the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act. None has yet been scheduled.

The petition seeks to have the judge order Workforce Services to produce part of Legal Aid's request within two days and other elements within 10 days.