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Idaho Legal Aid sues Gov. Little, Dept. of Labor over cutoff of federal unemployment benefits

Idaho Legal Aid Services is challenging Governor Brad Little’s move to end extra unemployment benefits for Idahoans early.

On Monday, Idaho Legal Aid’s Associate Director Howard Belodoff and Martin Hendrickson filed a motion in district court for injunctive relief against Little and the Idaho Department of Labor for “violating their statutory obligations” to ensure the Gem State’s residents receive the additional unemployment benefits from the CARES Act.

Belodoff argued on behalf of two plaintiffs that the state cutting off the unemployment benefits early “severed a lifeline” for Idahoans who lost work at no fault of their own during the pandemic and have been unable to find a new job.

“There is no evidence that terminating benefits would cure the labor shortage,” Belodoff wrote in an email. “The DOL’s own study proves that the rationale has no factual basis. It is really just complying with the Idaho Employment Security Law. It has caused people to rely on government assistance for rent, food and medical care. Every person I spoke with had never relied upon public assistance before.”

Belodoff is requesting the state resume its participation in the program until it expires at the beginning of next month and back pay the funds applicants missed out on. As of June 19th, there were 8,924 Idahoans relying on the federal benefits that lost all of their assistance, according to DOL statistics cited in the complaint. Another roughly 5,000 recipients had their weekly benefits reduced due to the end of federal benefits.

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Suit says decision cut off lifeline

Little announced in May the state would stop distributing additional federal unemployment benefits in mid-June, eleven weeks before the benefits were set to expire. At the announcement of his decision, he suggested ending the benefits early would help push workers to fill the shortage of lower-wage jobs in hospitality, food service, and other industries that have plagued businesses paying lower wages in recent months, according to the Idaho Press. He joined several other Republican governors across the country in ending the additional unemployment benefits early.

Little’s spokesperson did not return a request for comment. The Department of Labor declined to comment due to pending litigation.

In the complaint, Belodoff argues that the Idaho Employment Security Act, which establishes the unemployment system to provide economic stability for workers who lost their jobs through no fault of their own, should be interpreted to mean the state has an obligation to provide whatever benefits are available. This should include the additional benefits allowed under the federal pandemic relief packages, even if it’s not the state’s own funds.

The additional unemployment benefits provided an additional $300 per week on top of the state provided unemployment insurance, but the program also extended unemployment benefits to those who would normally not be eligible to receive benefits (like gig workers) and allowed workers who would have exhausted their benefits under normal circumstances to still receive them.

Idaho’s unemployment claims have steadily fallen all year from the high of 30,359 in February down to 4,554 on August 14th. The unemployment rate is hovering at 3%, down from 3.3% in February.

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Both plaintiffs immunocompromised

In the complaint, Belodoff outlined the situations of his two plaintiffs, which were only identified by their initials. The first plaintiff, A.E., is a 38-year-old from Salmon, Idaho who had been working in construction for a year prior to being laid off at the beginning of the pandemic. He filed for unemployment and was receiving $450 total per week in benefits while he looked for work. His employment options are limited because he is immunocompromised, but the complaint said he continued to search for work.

A.E. received a job offer, but cannot start work until October, the complaint said. After Little ended the additional benefits early in June, he had no income aside from $254 per month in SNAP benefits to purchase food and has had to rely on his father for a free place to stay until he can start his new job this fall.

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The second plaintiff, K.S., is a 35-year-old from Meridian who was laid off by All Social Inc. after four months of work in mid-March 2020. He is also immunocompromised due to Crohn’s Disease and lost his health insurance during the pandemic, resulting in a hospital stay in April 2021 due to a lack of preventive medical care, according to the complaint.

The complaint says once the additional unemployment benefits ended, K.S. lost all of his income and has been unable to afford rent, credit card payments, health insurance, food or other costs while he continues to search for work that is safe for him to perform away from the virus, the complaint said. The pandemic has also resulted in a severe mental strain in K.S., forcing him to seek counseling to handle anxiety and depression, but he may have to end the service due to the cost, Idaho Legal Aid wrote.

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Margaret Carmel - BoiseDev Sr. Reporter
Margaret Carmel is a BoiseDev reporter focused on the City of Boise, housing, homelessness and growth. Contact her at [email protected] or by phone at (757)705-8066.

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