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Courts in Arkansas and Ohio split on restoring pandemic unemployment benefits


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By Tami Luhby, CNN

Pandemic unemployment benefits must restart in Arkansas while a lawsuit works its way through the court system, a state judge ruled in a decision filed Thursday.

On the same day, an Ohio state judge denied a similar request to restore the $300 weekly pandemic supplement to jobless residents while he considers the case.

The split rulings are the latest in the quest by out-of-work Americans to reverse the decisions of more than two dozen governors to terminate at least one of three historic pandemic unemployment benefits programs early in an effort to spur residents to return to work.

Courts in Maryland and Indiana recently nixed governors’ orders to cease the benefits early, restoring payments to hundreds of thousands of people in those states.

RELATED: Maryland extends pandemic unemployment benefits after court order. Indiana does not.

Also on Thursday, laid-off Floridians filed a lawsuit challenging GOP Gov. Ron DeSantis’ decision to terminate the $300 weekly boost on June 26 instead of in early September, when the pandemic programs will end in the states that are continuing them.

States’ obligation to obtain unemployment benefits for residents

In Arkansas, Circuit Judge Herbert Wright Jr. said state law requires state officials to work with the federal government to secure all available unemployment compensation.

“The clear meaning of Arkansas law in this regard is that the state is to participate in these types of programs for the benefit of its citizens,” Wright wrote in his order. “The court has serious doubts that the governor and the director of Workforce Services were acting within the scope of their duties, as these decisions would normally be the subject of legislation from the General Assembly.”

The ruling is a victory for the roughly 69,000 people who lost their benefits when Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson decided they would end on June 26, said Kevin De Liban, director of advocacy for the Legal Aid of Arkansas, which filed the lawsuit on behalf of five jobless residents.

“Everyone has made their best efforts to go back to work, but it’s not easy out there, and the current Covid outbreak isn’t going to make it any easier,” De Liban said, noting that the state requires the unemployed to search for work and accept suitable jobs as a condition of receiving unemployment benefits.

The state will appeal the preliminary injunction, said Shealyn Sowers, Hutchinson’s spokeswoman.

RELATED: More people looking for — but not taking — jobs after their unemployment benefits end early

In Ohio, a state judge declined to grant a temporary restraining order that would require GOP Gov. Mike DeWine to restart the $300 weekly supplement, which ended on June 26. State law references unemployment compensation available under the Social Security Act, Judge Michael Holbrook said in his decision.

“The wording chosen by the Ohio General Assembly clearly does not include the CARES Act,” Holbrook wrote, referring to the coronavirus relief package Congress passed in March 2020 that created the three pandemic unemployment programs.

The plaintiffs will immediately appeal, said their attorney, Marc Dann.

DeWine and Lt. Gov. Jon Husted praised the decision, saying that ending the federal boost helps both employers and workers.

“As a result of the tough decisions we have made, Ohio’s recovery is strong, unemployment claims are declining, and Ohio’s unemployment rate is below the national average,” they said.

Additional lawsuits

Out-of-work residents in Oklahoma and Texas have also filed lawsuits in hopes of restoring the benefits, while an effort is underway in Missouri to challenge Republican Gov. Mike Parson’s decision to terminate the programs.

Some 26 governors — all but one of them Republicans — announced in recent months that they are dropping at least one of the three pandemic unemployment insurance programs Congress enacted in March 2020 and extended twice to support people during the virus-fueled economic downturn. (The programs were since restored in Maryland and Indiana by court order.)

RELATED: Louisiana will be the first Democrat-led state to end $300-a-week pandemic unemployment benefit early

In addition to the $300 weekly supplement, the federal programs provide benefits to freelancers, the self-employed, independent contractors and certain people affected by the coronavirus, and to those who have exhausted their regular state benefits.

Citing workforce shortages, the governors argue the expanded benefits are keeping the unemployed from accepting job offers.

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