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Arkansas must rejoin federal covid relief unemployment programs, judge rules

by John Lynch | July 29, 2021 at 3:15 p.m.
People wait in line to file for unemployment Friday, May 22, 2020, at the Little Rock office of the state Division of Workforce Services. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Stephen Swofford)

Arkansas must immediately rejoin federal covid-relief unemployment programs that can pay out-of-work job seekers an extra $300 weekly, Pulaski County Circuit Judge Herb Wright has ruled.

Wright ordered the state's Workforce Services Administration to re-enroll in the program after five unemployed Arkansas residents, represented by Legal Aid, sued Gov. Asa Hutchinson for pulling out of the payment programs in June, 10 weeks before they were set to expire. Wright’s order is temporary, lasting until a full trial can be held.

The lawsuit accuses the Republican governor of exceeding his authority when he ordered Arkansas to withdraw. Wright found merit in that argument, stating that participation in unemployment programs is up to the Legislature, the three-page ruling issued Wednesday states.

"The court has serious doubts that the governor and director of Workforce Services were acting within the scope of their duties, as these decisions would normally be the subject of legislation from the General Assembly," Wright's ruling states.

Workforce Services, headed by Charisse Childers since May 2019, administers unemployment benefits. Childers is a co-defendant in the litigation.

The programs are voluntary, giving states the option of joining, Wright noted, stating that the litigation rests on the question of who decides whether Arkansas participates, the governor or the General Assembly.

To reach his conclusion, that the Legislature has written Arkansas unemployment policy into law, the judge stated he turned to two statutes that describe why lawmakers think unemployment programs are important and how Arkansas should participate in them.

Arkansas Code 11-10-310 mandates that the state "shall cooperate with [federal unemployment] to the fullest extent ... to secure to this state and its citizens all advantages available."

"This provision, as well as others ... indicates to the court that the state legislature has clearly stated its public policy," Wright's ruling states. "The clearing meaning of Arkansas law in this regard is that the state is to participate in these types of programs for the benefits of its citizens."

Arkansas Code 11-10-102 "speaks directly to the public policy of this issue," the judge wrote

"Involuntary unemployment is a subject of general interest and concern which requires appropriate action by the General Assembly to prevent its spread and to tighten its burden which may fall with crushing force upon the unemployed worker and his or her family," the law states. "The General Assembly, therefore, declares that in its considered judgment the public good and the general welfare of the citizens of this state require ... for the compulsory setting aside of unemployment reserves to be used for the benefit of persons unemployed through no fault of their own."

CORRECTION: Five unemployed Arkansas residents, represented by Legal Aid, sued Gov. Asa Hutchinson for pulling out of the payment programs in June, 10 weeks before they were set to expire. An earlier version of this story misstated the date Hutchinson pulled out of the program.

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