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Denied unemployment benefits, Minnesota high schoolers push for reforms

Youthprise, a local nonprofit, has filed a lawsuit in federal court against DEED for barring high school students in Minnesota from receiving CARES Act funding designed for workers otherwise ineligible for unemployment benefits.

A 1939 Minnesota law bars high school students from receiving unemployment insurance.
A 1939 Minnesota law bars high school students from receiving unemployment insurance.
Photo by dapiki moto on Unsplash

When the pandemic hit last spring, Hayat Muse transitioned to distance learning to finish out her junior year at Spring Lake Park High School. Her part-time job — working at a nearby Caribou Coffee shop — didn’t fare so well. 

She had been working anywhere from 15 to 20 hours a week, outside of school hours, to help supplement her mother’s income. But as business came to a halt, she got furloughed right away in March. 

“I was one of the youngest working there,” she said. “I was also one of the first to be furloughed.”

Growing up in a single-parent household, with eight siblings and a grandmother, she began working the summer before ninth grade to help contribute to her household financially. 

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“It didn’t go to shopping at the mall,” she said. “It was for eating, electrical bills, or whatever bill my mom couldn’t cover that month. The money I brought in played a crucial role in my household, in making sure we stayed afloat.”

While the pandemic rendered her jobless, it also exacerbated many of those expenses — internet usage at home increased with everyone doing school remotely, as did grocery expenses with everyone home all day, every day. 

Hayat Muse
Hayat Muse
Early on, she applied for unemployment benefits. Through an error on the state’s end, she ended up receiving those benefits — regular state unemployment benefits, plus an additional $600 a week through the Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation — for over a month.

When the state came back, directing her to repay everything that it had allocated to her bank account in error, she learned Minnesota is one of only a handful of states that actually bars high school students from receiving unemployment benefits.

Right away, she paid back around $1,100 in state unemployment benefits that she’d received and had saved up in her bank account. She ended up appealing the directive to repay the $3,000 that she’d received through the federal program — and got that repayment waived. 

Through a quick Google search, she connected with other Minnesota youth caught in a similar situation  — denied access to unemployment benefits simply because they were enrolled in high school. 

Working alongside youth like Muse, Youthprise — a local nonprofit aimed at tackling disparities impacting Minnesota’s Indigenous, low-income and racially diverse youth — began leading reform efforts at both the state and federal levels. Unable to move any reforms past the current political gridlock, the nonprofit is supporting a group of high school students pursuing litigation.

Thursday morning, Youthprise filed a lawsuit in federal court against the state Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED) for barring high school students in Minnesota from receiving CARES Act funding designed for workers otherwise ineligible for unemployment benefits.

We’ve explored state and federal legislative solutions. We’ve been in numerous conversations with DEED and connected with the [Attorney General’s] office, prior to filing the lawsuit,” Marcus Pope, vice president of the nonprofit, said in an interview Thursday morning. “Our goal was to reach some type of agreement, but we had no choice. Young people are hurting. They’re significantly impacted by this … and we believe they need some relief. They’re entitled to relief.”

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A technicality with financial consequences

All of the nation-leading disparities that we see in our state — in areas like health, education, workforce and home ownership — says Pope, have been exacerbated by the pandemic. And young people of color who are disproportionately young workers, he adds, are being left behind when it comes to unemployment benefits as well. Their employers pay into the system on their behalf. Yet the state is denying high schoolers access to these benefits. 

Marcus Pope
Marcus Pope
“So, basically, you have a situation where young workers — who are more diverse, racially and ethnically — are subsidizing unemployment benefits for older, whiter workers in the state,” Pope said. 

In Minnesota, this can be traced back to a 1939 state law that bars high school students from receiving unemployment insurance. State officials with DEED have been applying this same qualifier to all federally issued unemployment aid related to the pandemic. 

Asked about its interpretation of that law, Jen Gates, a spokesperson for DEED, pointed to the department’s compliance with Minnesota Statute 268.085, which “explicitly lays out applicants that are not eligible for unemployment insurance benefits in Minnesota.” That list includes the following disqualifier: “when the applicant is a student in attendance at, or on vacation from a secondary school including the period between academic years or terms.”

By contrast, other Midwestern states, like Iowa and Michigan, are allowing high school students to access federal pandemic benefits. “Should we really be looking to 1939 to determine how we treat young people during this time?” Pope added, noting his ancestors “couldn’t even vote then.”

DEED helping youth craft legislative proposals

Asked for an update on if — or how — DEED is involved in any changes to this practice, Gates said the department believes that “young workers separated from their jobs deserve the same unemployment benefits as adult workers,” framing it as a “basic fairness issue.” Department leaders have been working with young people, she added, helping them to shape legislative proposals. 

“In fact, Commissioner [Steve] Grove tried to add changing this law to the agenda for July’s special session but was not able to get traction,” she wrote in an email. “Unfortunately, in terms of implementation, DEED’s hands remained tied by Minnesota Statute 268.085. We will prioritize our efforts to change this law in the upcoming legislative session starting this January.” 

Sen. Tina Smith
Sen. Tina Smith
Over the summer, Sen. Tina Smith connected with Youthprise and got involved. In August, she and Rep. Angie Craig introduced a bill in Congress that would ensure high school students in Minnesota who lost their jobs due to the COVID-19 pandemic are eligible for unemployment benefits. It has yet to go anywhere, but it is still in play. 

“Thousands of high school students across Minnesota rely on part-time and summer jobs to help their families make ends meet or to save for college. When the coronavirus devastated our economy, many lost their employment, but unlike students in other states, Minnesota high schoolers have not been able to receive unemployment benefits,”  Sen. Smith said in a written statement.  “As I push for a new round of coronavirus relief in the Senate, I will work to include my bill to fix this issue so that Minnesota high school students are eligible for unemployment compensation.”

For some youth, this technicality poses a drastic crossroads: complete high school, or drop out to qualify for unemployment benefits to help support themselves and their families. It’s one of the many concerns fueling Pope and the youth he’s working alongside to advance reforms sooner. 

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For Muse, school remains the priority. She’s currently enrolled in college-level courses, through the Postsecondary Enrollment Options program that allows public high schoolers to earn college credit while still enrolled in high school. But she’s still struggling to work out the paycheck piece. By July, she’d made it back on the work schedule. Her hours, however, now fluctuate anywhere from zero hours a week to a maximum of five hours a week, she says. She tried looking for other jobs, but she doesn’t drive or have reliable transportation to work somewhere too far from home. And nearby job options for a 17-year-old are limited.

“For a lot of high school students, the money they make at their part-time job isn’t pocket change,” she said. “It’s oftentimes very necessary for their households. That was my experience.”

This story has been updated to reflect the filing of a lawsuit Thursday morning.