Judge to state: Try to restart jobs relief

Governor’s halt dubious, he says

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)
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)

Pulaski County Circuit Judge Herbert T. Wright Jr. on Thursday ordered the state to try to resume its participation in a federal unemployment assistance program that Gov. Asa Hutchinson had sought to end.

Wright's temporary injunction against Hutchinson's order affects some 69,000 unemployed Arkansans who had been receiving weekly $300 federal supplements to their regular unemployment compensation benefits from the state.

Hutchinson announced in May that he would end Arkansas' participation in the federal programs after June 26. Hutchinson said the federal supplements were interfering with employers' ability to find enough workers.

The nonprofit Legal Aid of Arkansas and five jobless Arkansans filed a lawsuit July 23 against Hutchinson and the state Division of Workforce Services, which manages the state's unemployment compensation program.

The lawsuit said Hutchinson had overstepped his authority in ending "life-sustaining benefits" for 68,853 Arkansas residents who qualified for the help.

Wright held an emergency hearing in the case Wednesday morning.

Hutchinson's decision -- similar to those made by several other Republican governors in their states -- ended Arkansas' participation in the federal programs with 10 weeks of benefits still available. Nationally, the federal pandemic-assistance supplements end Sept. 6.

Wright wrote that the programs "are clearly voluntary" and that he had to decide "who gets to determine whether to participate -- the executive branch or the legislative [branch]." Wright went with the General Assembly.

"The Court has serious doubts that the Governor and the 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 wrote. "With an eye toward the plain meaning of the statutes ... and the clear public policy of this State, the State is ordered to reengage these terminated programs if the United States Government will agree to permit the State to do so."

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According to the lawsuit, of 68,853 jobless Arkansans affected by Hutchinson's order, 48,496 lost all benefits. The remaining 20,357 continued to receive standard state unemployment benefits but lost the weekly $300 supplement, the lawsuit said.

"The plaintiffs' stories show how hard the pandemic has hit people in all sectors of the economy, whether you're a factory worker, housekeeper, sandblaster, music teacher, or jewelry maker," Kevin De Liban, director of advocacy for Legal Aid of Arkansas, said after Wright's ruling, citing the occupations of the five plaintiffs. "Everyone has made their best efforts to go back to work, but it's not easy out there, and the current covid outbreak isn't going to make it any easier."

Hutchinson didn't have much to say about Wright's order when asked about it during a news conference Thursday afternoon at the Capitol. Hutchinson had called the news conference to address the continued rise in the number of covid-19 cases in the state.

"I've just been made aware of that today, and I want to study the decision and see what the appropriate action is," Hutchinson said. "Obviously we want to consult with the attorney general, and it is my understanding that there will be a quick appeal that will be filed with the Arkansas Supreme Court."

Wright ordered the state to provide written proof if the federal government won't allow Arkansas to rejoin the program.

Hutchinson's order stopped four federal programs from being administered in the state: Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation, Mixed Earner Unemployment Compensation and Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation.

Legal Aid of Arkansas said the U.S. Department of Labor "has made it clear in recent guidance" that states that withdrew from the federal programs would be allowed to resume such participation.

When Hutchinson made the decision to withdraw from the federal programs, he wrote, "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.

"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."

Legal Aid of Arkansas said reinstating benefits for the people who are eligible amounts to about $30.3 million a week.

De Liban said federal and state law requires the 68,853 affected by Hutchinson's order to search for work and accept any suitable work offered or lose their benefits.

"I think that's overlooked a lot," De Liban said. "It doesn't seem right to me to reject $30 million a week in federal money aimed at helping Arkansans survive in the middle of a pandemic, especially when they already have to be seeking work or taking suitable work."

The case is 60CV-21-4507 in Pulaski County Circuit Court.

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