Students file lawsuit against DEED over unemployment benefits

The department that oversees employment in Minnesota is now at the center of a lawsuit filed by high school students. The students and the group, Youthprise, are suing the Minneosta Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED) over unemployment benefits.

“I just want to get money to those kids who lost their jobs through no fault of their own and weren’t able to collect any of the benefits,” said Cole Stevens, an 18-year-old from Bloomington.

Stevens was clocking 25 to 30 hours a week at a Bloomington coffee shop until the pandemic hit.

“Ever since, I was like a sophomore in high school, I’ve been paying bills,” he said. “Phone bills, electricity and gas and then sometimes I pay rent too, whatever needs to be covered.”

When his hours were cut last spring, he applied for unemployment benefits.

“There was actually a question in the application that asks ‘Are you a high school student?’ I checked that box,” said Stevens.

He told 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS he tried to get benefits for about four weeks. During that time, the coffee shop closed permanently due to the pandemic.

On May 2, he said he received a benefits payment for about four weeks of lost wages. It amounted to $3,714, including the additional $600 per week Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation.

“Instantly, I paid for the rent, I paid for the utilities, I paid for food on the table and in the fridge,” said Stevens. “Only about a week later, a little bit less, did they actually say you’re ineligible and due to this determination, you need to pay all of your money back.”

According to state law, high school students are not eligible to receive unemployment benefits. Stevens, however, argues he should’ve been covered by the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) program.

PUA provides benefit payments to those who are, “not eligible for regular employment benefits,” according to the DEED website.

“Unfortunately, DEED has taken the position that they are not eligible for those federal benefits,” said Matt Norris, policy director at Youthprise.

The organization has joined Stevens, who graduated in May, and current high school students in a lawsuit arguing DEED violated federal law by denying those benefits. They are seeking DEED be required to provide those benefits to those who qualify.

The lawsuit outlines Stevens’ struggle and claims “DEED has similarly denied the applications for PUA benefits by numerous other young people who are represented in this case by Youthprise solely because they are high school students.”

“I think we have to start to reconsider this notion we have about what high school employment looks like,” said Norris. “For many families, these young people are one of, if not the only, breadwinner in the household.”

Norris said if they are successful, it will have a broad impact.

“Not only would it help individuals employees like Cole who have appealed and are going through the process, we’re also pushing for it to apply retroactively to anybody who has not yet applied for those unemployment insurance benefits,” said Norris. “It’s hard to get an exact figure potentially on more than 10,000 high school students across the state of Minnesota.”

Stevens added, “For my whole family and for hundreds of other families out there, and disproportionately so Black and brown families and inner-city communities.”

Stevens appealed DEED’s decision and now is being asked to repay $1,314 of the total. Through the lawsuit, he and other students are seeking reimbursement.

While they hope it will allow other students to receive benefits through the PUA program, they also have a larger goal. They want to see a change to the state’s unemployment insurance law to allow high school students to apply for that as well.

“I don’t think that young people are really ever taken into consideration when decisions are being made and I think it’s time for that to change,” said Stevens.

DEED Commissioner Steve Grove said in a statement, “While DEED has a responsibility to uphold the current law, we are strongly supportive of efforts to legislatively broaden the law to provide Unemployment Insurance benefits to Minnesota’s high school students who meet all of the other eligibility requirements in the Unemployment Insurance law.”

A spokesperson told 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS they cannot comment further on ongoing litigation.