Cole Stevens was laid off from his Bloomington food service job at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, and since then, he's gotten by with freelance audio work and other odd jobs. But as the colder months approach, so does more uncertainty about his ability to help out with the bills at home.

"It's so scary, because my dad doesn't have any health insurance, and I don't have any health insurance," he said. "Finding a job is already difficult, but also finding a job that's not going to severely increase the chances of me getting sick, my dad getting sick, and just going bankrupt is really hard."

Many Minnesota high school students like Stevens lost their jobs and were denied unemployment benefits and pandemic assistance simply for being students. The recent high school graduate is among the plaintiffs in a federal lawsuit filed last month by youth equity nonprofit Youthprise against the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED) and DEED Commissioner Steve Grove.

The pandemic's toll on the economy has negatively impacted many Minnesotans, with young people enduring layoffs and terminations as they are more likely to work in affected industries like food service and restaurants. A Pew Research study from June showed that more than 1 in 4 young adult workers age 16 to 24 were without work in May.

Though some high school students work to make cash for leisure activities, many are working to support themselves and their families.

The lawsuit seeks to end DEED's practice of denying Pandemic Unemployment Assistance to qualified high school students. The students are also seeking retroactive payment for benefits that they believe they were entitled to, as they met all other unemployment requirements.

Stevens, 18, applied for and received PUA funds, which he quickly used to pay bills. But he was later asked to return it because it covered a period when he was still in school. He appealed that decision, and after a hearing held over the summer, Stevens was only asked to pay back the funds received from the state.

The 1939 Minnesota state law that bars high school students from receiving unemployment insurance is one of the strictest such laws in the country.

If the lawsuit is successful, it would also affect Walter Cortina, who discovered he was ineligible for unemployment benefits after losing his jobs at McDonald's and a local car wash at the start of the pandemic. Since then, 17-year-old Cortina has led a youth coalition on the subject, arranging meetings with members of the state government, as well as other unemployed students, to document their stories.

Cortina, of Minneapolis, considers himself lucky because he was able to secure a paid internship early in the summer. But many young people have not been so lucky, Cortina said.

"There's thousands of kids that are still struggling," Cortina said. "It's great because if we do end up winning the lawsuit, all those kids who didn't have a job from when COVID started, they'd get reimbursed."

Grove, the DEED commissioner, said in a statement that DEED supports legislative change to the law.

"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," Grove said.

DEED was not able to comment further on ongoing litigation.

Though this year has presented many challenges, both Cortina and Stevens said they were proud to be behind a youth-led coalition. Their activism will extend beyond the unemployment issue, too. Last week, Stevens, Cortina and other young people hosted a panel with state and community leaders on education reform.

"It's incredible to see a bunch of young people speaking to people in power and talking about these issues," Stevens said. "Now the next step is to take it to the Capitol and making things happen. For so long, young people have had absolutely no say in things, and that's going to change."

Zoë Jackson covers young and new voters at the Star Tribune through the Report for America program, supported by the Minneapolis Foundation. 612-673-7112 • Twitter: @zoemjack