Rahma Farah is a 17-year-old student who lost the job she needed to help feed her family when COVID-19 hit. Her mom also was out of work.
Like Rahma, Cole Stevens, 18, had been working since age 14 to help meet his family's basic needs including rent and food.
The Minneapolis students are among several who told stories of being denied unemployment benefits during a call with Gov. Tim Walz and Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan earlier this week. Though they worked and paid taxes like any other employee, the lack of aid created dire financial problems for them. But due to their persistence and that of the Youthprise advocacy group, those much-needed dollars should be coming their way.
Their work demonstrates how young people can make a difference by working within the system to address unfair, antiquated policies — even those embedded in law.
Earlier this month, the state Court of Appeals ruled in favor of a lawsuit filed by Youthprise, finding that an unemployment law judge incorrectly determined that high school students were ineligible to receive federal Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA). The decision makes $14 million to $28 million in benefits available, Youthprise Vice President Marcus Pope told the Star Tribune.
"We're thrilled, we're excited and we're a little exhausted from everything we've tried to do over the course of the last eight months to try to bring relief to young people," Pope said.
As a result of the court's ruling, Minnesota high school students who were laid off or furloughed due to the coronavirus pandemic will be eligible for federal unemployment insurance back pay. The unemployment law judge had cited a 1939 state law in ruling that teens were not eligible for any unemployment aid.
Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, nearly half of Minnesotans aged 16 to 19 participated in the state's workforce. And on average, they made more than $11 per hour, according to a brief filed by the state attorney general's office.
About 17% of high school students reported saving at least 41% of their earnings for future education expenses. And more than 10% reported contributing at least 41% of their paychecks to their households — a figure that is closer to 25% for students of color.
Younger workers have tended to suffer the greatest pandemic-related work losses because their jobs are concentrated in areas most affected by COVID-19 — namely hospitality businesses like fast food and restaurants.
State officials said they expect 15,000 to 20,000 high school students to apply for unemployment benefits after the ruling. An application deadline of Dec. 26 had been set, but officials noted that students can still apply after that date has passed to receive benefits retroactively. Teens and families can get more information at uimn.org.
Going forward, Youthprise and students like Rahma Farah and Cole Stevens will rightly lobby the Legislature to repeal the 1939 law that covers state unemployment benefits. During the 2021 session, lawmakers should listen to their pleas and get rid of the outdated statute.