Advocates sue SC governor, state labor agency over ending COVID unemployment benefits

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Four South Carolina residents sued Gov. Henry McMaster and the head of the SC unemployment agency Wednesday for “prematurely” ending federal unemployment benefits for people who lost their jobs during the coronavirus pandemic.

Appleseed Legal Justice Center, a legal group that advocates for low-income people, and Kassel McVey law firm filed the suit against McMaster and Daniel Ellzey, the state’s director of the Department of Employment and Workforce (DEW), on behalf of the four South Carolina residents who were put out of work as COVID-19 took a hold on the state. If the suit is successful all South Carolina residents would be affected.

“Governor McMaster has directed DEW to refuse more than half a billion dollars in federal unemployment benefits that are sorely needed in our state,” Adam Protheroe, litigation attorney at Appleseed Legal Justice Center, said in a statement. “By directing DEW to reject these funds and violate its legal obligations, he has overstepped his authority and done significant harm to the tens of thousands of South Carolinians who still rely on these benefits.”

On McMaster’s order, DEW ended on June 27 the federal unemployment benefits granted by the CARES Act, which was meant to help people during the pandemic, the suit said. The following week, South Carolina residents lost $39 million they could have received.

Brian Symmes, spokesperson for McMaster, said the governor’s office is unable to comment on specific litigation but that the “governor’s position has been clear.”

“It’s past time for South Carolinians to get back to work,” Symmes said. “We simply can’t continue to incentivize able-bodied South Carolinians to stay home rather than accept one of the tens of thousands of available jobs in the state. Our economy has already recovered faster than virtually any other state’s because of the governor’s decision to put an end to the gratuitous federal unemployment benefits, and we expect to see even more progress in the near future.”

The suit alleges that DEW is breaking a legal requirement to “act as necessary to secure all benefits under the Social Security Act,” such as the COVID unemployment benefits.

The court filing lays out the dilemmas the four unemployment residents are in after the federal benefits were cut off.

In one case, an Air Force veteran and mother of three, including one child with cerebral palsy, lost her job at a hotel because of coronavirus, according to the suit. The federal unemployment helped her pay bills as best she could. She’s applied to dozens of jobs but can’t find one that allows her to take care of her children. She’s now three months behind on rent and has overdue bills. Being denied federal unemployment money is making the situation worse, the suit said.

The plaintiffs are identified by initials only in the suit because they fear harassment and retaliation, the suits said.

“Things have been hard enough for us out here and it’s definitely not back to normal everywhere,” one of the plaintiffs said in a statement. “I’ve been doing all these job searches but can’t find anything. So many people stand to lose so much without these benefits.”

CARES Act unemployment benefits were set to be given out until Sept. 6, 2021. With the earlier cutoff in South Carolina, unemployed people and those who might become unemployed will miss out on $578 million, the suit said.

“It’s not as simple as getting back to work in a post-pandemic world for many adults in South Carolina right now,” said Sue Berkowitz, director of Appleseed Legal Justice Center. “Many pre-pandemic jobs simply no longer exist. Some individuals must be at home to care for their kids, their high-risk family members. Other individuals are suffering from medical issues resulting from COVID-19 infection.”

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