Teens fight the State for benefits—and win

High school students who are employed in Minnesota now can qualify for unemployment insurance benefits thanks to their activist peers.

 The Minnesota Court of Appeals reversed an unemployment law judge’s ruling and ruled in favor of Youthprise, a local nonprofit youth advocacy organization. The ruling allows high school students who were laid off due to the COVID-19 pandemic to be eligible to receive federal pandemic unemployment assistance.

The decision affects an estimated 15,000 to 20,000 students.   

The Minnesota Legislature later passed a new law that became effective in July 2022, eliminating a 1939 state law that barred youth workers from receiving unemployment insurance while in high school. The law came into question during the pandemic, which saw many workers laid off, including high school workers.

Young people led the way in challenging the 82-year-old law. The MSR last week talked to several then-laid-off high schoolers about their efforts.

“It’s definitely a really scary thing,” recalled Cole Stevens of Bloomington, now 20. While in high school, Stevens helped his family pay rent and utilities but lost his job due to the virus. He initially applied for unemployment benefits but was rejected; then he was approved and started receiving benefits. But Stevens later was ordered to pay the money back. 

“Being 18 years old and literally standing up to the state government,” continued Stevens, “there’s a lot of things that went through my head. But to be honest, what kept me going was the fact that it was the right thing to do.”

Lincoln Bacal, then a 17-year-old high schooler, experienced a similar fate when she lost her job at a local coffee shop. “I couldn’t access [unemployment] benefits, and the same thing was happening to my friends,” remembered Bacal. “We were really relying on this income” to help with household expenses, she added.

Hayat Muse worked up to 20 hours a week at a coffee shop as a high school student. She got laid off and applied for unemployment benefits and was approved.  But like Stevens, Muse was later told that she shouldn’t have gotten the benefits and was ordered to repay over $4,000. She repaid nearly half of it and got a waiver for the rest.

Stevens, Bacal and Muse are active in Youthprise, which filed a suit against the State on their behalf. The three are also part of Bridgemakers, a new youth-led coalition that was founded as a result of fighting against the outdated Minnesota law.

“We were shut down at first,” said Bacal, now 19, “because people don’t want to listen to young people. I feel that’s why young people don’t want to become civically engaged, because they know that their voice doesn’t matter.”  She and Stevens also testified in front of state lawmakers.

“This is a great story of youngsters successfully challenging the state government,” stressed Joe Nathan of the Center for School Change. He told the MSR last week that this isn’t some “kids are messed up” type of story too often promoted in the media. Instead, he noted, it’s a story of young people “finding ways to challenge the system,” said Nathan.

High school students who were initially denied unemployment insurance in 2020 had their claims reviewed by the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED) in December 2020. Eligible students could receive both retrospective and prospective adjustments for up to 39 weeks of benefits for 2020.

“There were two different victories—the 2020 victory at the state [appeals] court … and the 2021 victory at the legislature that went into effect this month and eliminated the 1939 law,” Nathan pointed out.

Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison’s office filed an amicus brief in support of the Youthprise suit. “We stood with the young people—they were the heroes,” Ellison told the MSR prior to his appearance at the  July 19 Youthprise-sponsored celebration on the State Capitol lawn in St. Paul. 

“They had the guts, the courage to stand up, to speak out. They [told] personal stories and they convinced the court,” Ellison added.

“This is an important moment,” declared Youthprise President Marcus Pope to the crowd of young people, elected officials and others. He called the one-hour gathering “the opportunity to celebrate the power of young people, and essentially the power of young people when they are valued, supported, and given space to assume the mantle.”

“Unemployment insurance is a lifeline,” reiterated Minnesota State Representative Emma Greenman (DFL-Minneapolis). “It’s a lifeline of benefits to Minnesota workers so they can take care of their families. It is even more important for low-wage workers, for folks making minimum wage who are living paycheck to paycheck just to get by.”

 Greenman praised and encouraged the young people: “I can tell you definitely we got this done because of you,” she added. “Your voices need to be at the center of our policymaking, not just on this issue but on every issue.”

“You’ve had a huge victory,” said DEED Commissioner Steve Grove. He advised the young people “to keep pushing us.”

“You guys are so amazing,” added Ellison. He told the MSR that he believes Stevens one day could be a fine lawyer if he so chooses.

“Keith wants me to be a lawyer,” acknowledged Stevens. “We’re gonna see what happens.  My future’s bright. I’m dedicated to the young people, and I think I can make more change on the ground with them.”

“We’re totally confident we’re able to articulate what we need and do that advocacy when we’re given the chance, when we’re given a platform,” said Bacal. 

One Comment on “Teens fight the State for benefits—and win”

  1. Congratulations to our youth and the tenacity they showed in moving this legislation forward. I’d also like to thank a “unsung hero” who were instrumental in making this happen, Marcus Pope of Youthprise for his leadership and Tashitaa Tufaa owner of Metropolitan Transportation Network for providing the bus to take the youth to the capital for the monumental celebration

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