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Take five minutes to help high school students fighting for workers’ rights

No more taxing students for insurance they can’t claim. If we urge our senators to include our provision in their jobs bill, equal workers’ rights will be brought to Minnesota’s hardworking students for good.

In Minnesota, a 1939 state law bars high school students from receiving unemployment insurance. State officials with DEED had been applying this same qualifier to all federally issued unemployment aid related to the pandemic.
In Minnesota, a 1939 state law bars high school students from receiving unemployment insurance. State officials with DEED had been applying this same qualifier to all federally issued unemployment aid related to the pandemic.
Photo by Daniel Norris on Unsplash

“I’m scared, I don’t know how I’m going to make this work.”

I didn’t know how to respond to my father when he told me that rent was due and his bank account was empty. That was four years ago, after he graduated from a treatment program and moved to Bloomington. My father had moved back out in a very different economy from when he started his program. It seemed impossible to find a job that would pay him north of $20 an hour without putting himself in serious danger or getting an expensive degree. He had to choose the former; he worked at a disaster restoration company in the Twin Cities, restoring homes and businesses after fires, floods and eventually fighting on the pandemic’s front lines by cleaning up COVID-19 exposures.

Support SF 1044

Before finishing the story, I want to urge, on behalf of thousands of Minnesota high school students, that you take five minutes to ask your Minnesota state senator to support SF 1044. I’ll explain why a little later.

I was living with my mom when my father called. She was doing all right, with lots of family to support her. So I decided in my sophomore year to move to Bloomington to help my father crawl out of debt. I worked after school and assisted with rent, utilities, food, and cell service. It was hard work. But day by day, shift by shift, we pulled ourselves out of poverty while planning to start a family business once we were more financially stable.

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“Pull yourself up by your bootstraps,” we thought, until the COVID-19 pandemic came along and cut the straps right off.

The local family-owned coffee shop where I worked, The Grind Coffee and Creamery, closed down permanently. My father suffered a deep reduction in hours. In late April 2020, a month from my graduation, I applied for unemployment insurance. My employer encouraged me to do so and assumed I’d be eligible since she was taxed on my labor to pay into the system.

Four weeks of lost wages, and then …

After our rent was late, the internet shut off and the fridge was empty, I received four weeks of lost wages. I used it all to pay bills and put food in the fridge. One week later I received a letter from the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED), which administers unemployment, demanding that I pay back everything. They wrote: “We’ve deemed you ineligible to receive compensation due to your enrollment status as a secondary student.”

But what I read was: “Your hard work and economic contribution don’t matter to us. Despite you being otherwise eligible, you had the audacity to work while getting your high school education.” In my attempt to pull my dad out of the hole, the state of Minnesota dug another right under us.

Literally left out in the cold

I’m just one of more than 20,000 Minnesota high school students with a similar story. At a time when the federal government was disbursing $3 trillion in CARES Act assistance to support businesses, governments and unemployed workers who weren’t in high school, we were left out, quite literally in the frigid Minnesota cold by a 1939 state law preventing high school students from receiving unemployment insurance.

Cole Stevens
Cole Stevens
Not only is this a basic issue of fairness, but the current law incentivizes students to drop out of high school to receive potentially life-saving benefits. No young person should have to choose between feeding themselves or their family and pursuing their education.

Quickly I met other students who’d been affected and we formed a coalition in partnership with Youthprise called “Minnesota Young Champions, later becoming Bridgemakers, co-founded by Walter

Cortina, 18, and me, 19. At the time I had no clue that this would be a definitive moment in my life. Instead of taking unemployment after graduation, I worked at Loyear Disaster Restoration with my father cleaning up sewer water, mold, hazardous waste and garbage by day and advocated for fellow hardworking young people by night.

Lawmakers couldn’t agree on funding

We met with hundreds of students, elected officials, community leaders and skeptics, reaching “across the aisle” to get a deal done. But Minnesota legislators couldn’t agree on the source of funding, because what we’d already paid in, others had taken out.

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We went to court. On Dec. 1, the Minnesota Court of Appeals ruled that DEED had unlawfully denied federal funds to high school students who were laid off because of the pandemic, making over $70 million available to students. For those waiting, claims are still being processed: Speak up and stay strong.

Despite this win four months ago, our lawsuit victory only addresses COVID-related eligibility for the federally funded PUA program.

Fighting to repeal the 1939 law

Now, with bipartisan support from co-sponsors Sen. Jason Rarick, R-Pine City, and Rep. Mohamud Noor, DFL-Minneapolis, members of their caucuses and the governor’s recommendation, we’re fighting to repeal the 1939 law. Today’s economy is far different from that of 1939. Thousands of today’s students are supporting themselves and their families, helping to pay for bills and/or save for college. The average cost to pursue a bachelor’s degree in 1985 was $5,504. In 2018 it was $27,357. That’s a 497% increase, more than double the rate of inflation. Wages meanwhile, have lagged behind.

No more taxing students for insurance they can’t claim. If we all spend five minutes right now urging our senators to include our provision, SF 1044, in their jobs bill, equal workers’ rights will be brought to Minnesota’s hardworking students for good.

Cole Stevens is the co-founder and vice president of Bridgemakers, a fully youth-led nonprofit organization dedicated to breaking the cycles of miseducation, poverty, violence and addiction by bridging the divide between young people’s innovative new ideas and older generations’ wisdom and social capital.

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