A lawsuit filed in Tulsa County claims Gov. Kevin Stitt’s move to end expanded federal unemployment programs early violates state law that requires the state’s unemployment system to secure “all advantages” for unemployed workers from the federal government.
The lawsuit claims Stitt had no authority to halt additional benefits intended to help people who lost their jobs amid the coronavirus pandemic.
The lawsuit, filed in Tulsa County District Court on Wednesday against Oklahoma Employment Security Commission Executive Director Shelley Zumwalt, seeks a court order against discontinuation of the programs, as well as for attorneys fees. The plaintiff has also requested a preliminary injunction reinstating the benefits while the matter is being litigated.
Zumwalt said Friday she could not comment on the lawsuit since it is still pending, and a phone message left late Friday afternoon with a spokesman for Stitt’s office was not immediately returned.
Oklahoma is one of several states that opted to cut off the extra federal unemployment benefits to workers, and lawsuits have been filed in some of those other states. And in at least one of those states a lawsuit has thus far been successful, with a judge recently ordering that the enhanced payments to workers be restarted.
The lawsuit was brought by a 53-year-old Tulsa County woman who worked at a Sand Springs Arby’s until October 2020. The woman, who has chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, was advised by a doctor to avoid working in public as much as possible due to the spread of COVID-19. She quit after she was ordered to work the drive-through window, according to the lawsuit.
The worker applied for unemployment benefits and began receiving them in January this year at a rate of about $413 per week, $300 of which were federally-enhanced unemployment benefits, the lawsuit claims.
The federal government approved enhanced and expanded unemployment benefits to workers affected by the coronavirus pandemic in early 2020 as many businesses shut down to try and prevent the spread and many customers opted to stay home.
Those federally-approved benefits included a $600-weekly increase for individuals receiving unemployment benefits. Subsequent legislation lowered that amount to $300 extra per week. Federal programs also expanded unemployment benefits to workers who would not traditionally qualify and increased the number of weeks the unemployed could receive benefits.
The federal legislation states those programs are to run until Sept. 6 this year.
In Oklahoma and other parts of the nation, unemployment applications surged in early 2020 to record levels not seen since the Great Depression, if ever, overwhelming the system. Eventually, the Oklahoma Employment Security Commission was able to implement the new benefits and get them to workers.
On May 15, Gov. Kevin Stitt signed an executive order stating that the state, which administers the federal unemployment assistance funds, would no longer provide workers with the $300 weekly extra funds. Eligibility for Oklahomans to qualify for additional unemployment benefits programs would also be ended as of June 26.
In its place, the Governor ordered a “Oklahoma Back-to-Work Initiative” to provide a one-time $1,200 check to up to 20,000 people who leave the unemployment insurance program and are employed by qualified employers by Sept. 4.
“This is the right move for Oklahoma,” Stitt said in a media release announcing the move. “Since our state has been open for business since last June, the biggest challenge facing Oklahoma businesses today is not reopening, it’s finding employees. For Oklahoma to become a Top Ten state, workforce participation must be at a top level and I am committed to doing what I can to help Oklahomans get off the sidelines and into the workforce.”
Some Oklahoma employers and the Oklahoma Chamber of Commerce also praised the move, saying it would incentivize people to return to work.
“The federal unemployment benefits are sitting on a table and included in all advantages due to unemployed Oklahomans, but Zumwalt is saying she will not give them to Oklahomans who are unemployed through no fault of their own because Governor Stitt ordered her not to,” the lawsuit claims.
The suit also claims that Stitt did not have the authority to order the Employment Security Commission —an independent state agency — to end the extra benefits. The commission never took action itself to discontinue the benefits, and there is no evidence that the increased federal benefits have incentivized people not to look for work, the lawsuit claims
“If Zumwalt does the Governor’s bidding without official Commission action, she violates the law,” the lawsuit claims. “Zumwalt works for the Commission, not the Governor and by discontinuing federal employment benefits without Commission authority her actions are illegal.”
Chad Smith, one of the attorneys who filed the suit, said time is of the essence since the benefits end in early September. While a decision in the suit may affect more individuals than the plaintiff in the case, it is not a class action suit, which would take more time to organize.
“The class of people it hurts most is the folks that work in the service industry. They don’t get to work remotely. They don’t have health insurance, they don’t have paid sick leave. In fact, they don’t even get a full 40 hours, fast food places keep them under 30,” Smith said. “So they’re working at marginal wages at sub-hours, just barely getting by. And the governor wants to drive these people back to these jobs.”
A hearing on the plaintiff’s request is scheduled for July 20, though, according to Smith, the OESC has requested that the case be transferred to Oklahoma County District Court.