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Why Minnesota high school students fought so hard to win pandemic unemployment benefits

The onset of COVID-19 and corresponding job loss has disrupted plans for high school workers just as it has for adults.

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

Before the COVID-19 pandemic hit last spring, Lincoln Bacal had planned on finishing the bulk of her senior year classes early so that she could double down on work to save up for college in the fall.

She’d spent the school year working 15 to 20 hours a week, on nights and weekends. Her three PSEO courses — which are college level courses that high schoolers can take for free — were wrapping up at the University of Minnesota Twin Cities campus in May. And she only had one class left to take through Venture Academy, her Minneapolis-based charter school.

But the pandemic disrupted her plans. Instead of working 40-plus hours a week, as she’d planned, she ended up losing her job at Sebastian Joe’s, an ice cream shop. And when she applied for unemployment benefits, the state denied her access to federal CARES Act dollars designed for workers otherwise ineligible for unemployment benefits. So she decided to put her college plans on hold.

“I was relying on that income. Currently I’m on a gap year. I’m taking a year off because I was hoping to have a lot more money saved by now,” she said. “If I had been able to get the benefits, I wouldn’t have had to worry about that. And I probably would be in school right now.”

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Her gap year has proven to be productive, though in a way that she hadn’t anticipated. Frustrated with a decision by the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED) to deny her access to Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, she and a former classmate joined forces to draw attention to the issue. As they collected stories from high schoolers experiencing unemployment due to the pandemic from across the state, it became clear that many had been relying on their income to help support their families and cover basic living expenses.

Lincoln Bacal
Lincoln Bacal
They lobbied at the state capitol for a change in state law. But they needed more leverage. So they joined forces with Youthprise, a local nonprofit, to file a lawsuit in federal court against DEED in early October. That case moved to the Minnesota Court of Appeals where, last week, they won their battle on the behalf of Minnesota high schoolers.

“By DEED’s own estimate, this ruling could unlock $13.7 to $27.9 million in federal funds for Minnesota high school students,” said Matt Norris, director of policy at Youthprise. “At a time when so many Minnesotans are struggling to make ends meet, this court victory will put money in the pockets of students and their families when they need it most.”

State law barred benefits for high schoolers

Walter Cortina, 18, advocated alongside Bacal, Youthprise and other youth involved in the reform effort. He too lost his job last spring, due to the pandemic, and discovered his status as a high schooler disqualified him from accessing unemployment benefits after he applied and got rejected.

He had been working nights and weekends at a car wash to support himself, covering housing bills and basic living expenses. He also relied on that income to send financial support to his mother in Mexico City, who got deported a few years back and underwent treatment for breast cancer. His father had been deported a few years prior.

Walter Cortina
Walter Cortina
“I don’t have my parents to fall back onto,” he said. “I don’t have a support system if I lose my job.”

Fortunately, he landed a paid internship a couple of weeks later and he had saved up some emergency funding to float that gap in employment. Since he was only out of work for a couple of weeks, he says the outcome of the reform effort won’t impact his own finances much. But it’s reinforced his belief that there’s a big disconnect between the experiences of youth and adults in positions of power.

“The biggest frustration I had is the state department [DEED] was really fighting against young people, to not help them out. That was one of the most confusing parts. We made the case that this wasn’t just pocket change,” he said, noting lots of high schoolers rely on their incomes to support basic living expenses.

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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. But as the reform effort moved to the Minnesota Court of Appeals for an expedited hearing, it got an unexpected boost from state Attorney General Keith Ellison, who filed an amicus brief in support of the case.

“I can’t say enough about how important and critical it was for Keith Ellision’s office to stand up and support young people,” said Marcus Pope, vice president of Youthprise. ‘It was a courageous move. something I never expected, or even thought was possible — for the attorney general to side with young people instead of the state.”

No final ruling or timeline

The courts expedited the hearing and decision on this case because the benefits only cover the weeks of January 27, 2020, through the end of 2020 — up to a maximum of 39 weeks. High schoolers who are eligible need to apply to receive Pandemic Unemployment Assistance by December 25. The benefits will be applied retroactively.

Marcus Pope
Marcus Pope
The court announced its decision in an order published December 1, the same day it heard oral arguments, in order to give parties time to act ahead of the December 25 deadline. It will later publish a more robust opinion, which will constitute its final ruling.

This delay has created another barrier, says Pope. “The site still says young people are ineligible,” he said, referring to DEED’s website. “That’s a huge hurdle for us.”

Also, the timeline for when eligible students will actually receive those funds remains unclear.

“We are awaiting the final opinion from the court. The final order will provide guidance and instruction to the department more broadly on eligibility of secondary students for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance benefits,” said Jen Gates, a spokesperson for DEED. “We encourage all students whose work has been impacted by the COVID-19 Pandemic to apply before the CARES Act provisions expire on December 26. We will determine individual eligibility once we receive final guidance from the court of appeals.”

In an effort to provide more clarity on the application process, Youthprise has published a more detailed guide on its website, here.

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“I’m glad the court ruled as quickly as they did. But we have no time. We really need as many people as possible to apply, and to get the word out,” Bacal said.“Otherwise it’s like we won’t be able to have that much of an impact.”