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Charleston, W.Va. — Citing a West Virginia state law that requires Workforce West Virginia to secure "all advantages available" for unemployed workers, two Kanawha County women filed lawsuits Tuesday against state officials over ending pandemic-related unemployment benefits.
Republican Governor Jim Justice, saying that businesses were struggling to find workers, ended federal programs providing enhanced benefits to unemployed workers affected by COVID-19 on June 19.
Represented by Mountain State Justice, Rebecca Urie, of Charleston, and Kimberly Griffith, of South Charleston, filed lawsuits in Kanawha County against Scott Adkins, Commissioner of Workforce West Virginia.
"By prematurely terminating the administration of the benefits, the State has violated the West Virginia Legislature's requirement that Commissioner Adkins secure to this state and its citizens 'all advantages available'...in the federal unemployment system," plaintiffs wrote.
Plaintiffs point to the area of state law creating a "mandatory, non-discretionary" duty for the commissioner. West Virginia code 21A-2-16 states:
"In the administration of this chapter the commissioner shall cooperate with the United States department of labor to the fullest extent consistent with the provisions of this chapter, and shall take such action through the adoption of appropriate rules, regulations, administrative methods and standards, as may be necessary to secure to this state and its citizens all advantages available under the provisions of the 'Social Security Act' which relate to unemployment compensation, the 'Federal Unemployment Tax Act,' the 'Wagner-Peyser Act,' and the 'Federal-State Extended Unemployment Compensation Act of 1970.'"
The CARES Act, or the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, included provisions for Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation (PEUC), which extended regular unemployment benefits; Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation (FPUC), which increased the amount of unemployment benefits that recipients receive each week; and Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA), which assisted affected workers not previously eligible for unemployment benefits.
Urie is a single mother supporting two children with autism who was eligible for all three benefit categories, the lawsuit states. Griffith is a 56-year-old South Charleston woman also eligible in all three categories.
Under federal law, West Virginians are eligible for those benefits through Sept. 6. Health officials have warned that the pandemic isn't over. Cases of COVID-19 due to the spread of the Delta variant among the unvaccinated are rising.
Plaintiffs wrote that the funds came with no cost to the state and allowed tens of thousands of West Virginians to "weather the extraordinary economic hardship through no fault of their own."
Justice has said workers refuse to return to available jobs, although he's pointed to conversations with business owners as the reason for that theory, not conversations with unemployed workers. His spokespersons didn't respond to an email Tuesday.
Urie was working for DoorDash and a South Charleston laboratory, the lawsuit states. The laboratory laid off all its employees in March 2020 and she stopped delivering for DoorDash over COVID-19 concerns. She has applied for 25-50 jobs a month and DoorDash has no open positions, the lawsuit states. Among other expenses, her children have therapy and appointments.
Griffith worked as a driver for Moses Auto Outlet, the lawsuit states. While she is still technically employed there, the employer has only scheduled her for a handful of days since the pandemic began. She has also actively sought new employment.
Plaintiffs are represented by Bren Pomponio and Laura Davidson, lawyers for the Charleston-based nonprofit legal firm Mountain State Justice. A court official and Pomponio said the two lawsuits were combined.
Plaintiffs noted that courts have sided with unemployed workers in Maryland and Indiana. Pomponio said those states have the same referenced statute as West Virginia.
Cases were assigned to Kanawha Circuit Judge Maryclaire Akers, whom Justice appointed in March. Adkins has 20 days to respond.
This story was first reported by journalist Erin Beck and published on erinbeckwv.com. Any information obtained from this story and not from original reporting should be attributed to Erin Beck.
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