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Unemployment benefits could be forthcoming for some teens

Teenagers out of work due to the COVID-19 pandemic might yet receive some income.

As amended, SSHF36 would allow students at least 16 years old to receive unemployment benefits. The bill would apply retroactively from March 15 and would extend until Dec. 26, 2020.

To qualify, a student must be “in attendance at, doing distance learning through, or on vacation from a secondary school, including the period between academic years or terms.”

“This is a temporary way to level the playing field for the students. They need us now more than ever,” said Rep. Mohamud Noor (DFL-Mpls), the bill sponsor.

Approved Friday by the House Jobs and Economic Development Finance Division on a party-line vote, the bill’s next stop is the House Ways and Means Committee. It has no direct Senate companion; however, Sen. Jason Rarick (R-Pine City) sponsors SSSF1 that would do the same thing but be financed from the federal coronavirus relief fund, rather than the state unemployment fund.

Steve Grove, commissioner of the Department of Employment and Economic Development, said current law prohibiting students from collecting unemployment benefits was established in 1939. He said employers pay into the state’s unemployment insurance system for these employees.

“This, at the most basic level, is a fairness issue,” he said.

“If you’ve worked, you should get unemployment,” added Rep. Tim Mahoney (DFL-St. Paul), the division chair.

The bill is expected to cost between $13 million and $27 million. Grove said the higher number represents less than 1% of unemployment dollars projected to be dispersed by the end of this year if current trends continue.

Lincoln Bacal, 17, a co-youth leader of the Don’t Forget Us Campaign, said in many instances, youth work to help support their family, not to purchase “frivolous things.”

“We don’t want to put young people in a situation where they have to decide whether or not they’re going to drop out of high school to become eligible for these benefits, or stay in high school and maybe not be able to pay rent or not be able to buy food,” she said.

Nor do they want to experience what happened to 18-year-old Cole Stevens.

Also a campaign co-youth leader, he received $1,314 in state help and $2,400 in federal dollars after applying for help when the coffee shop where he worked closed because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The money was quickly used for rent and other bills. But about a week later, Stevens was notified the state is demanding the money back because he received it during his last months of high school.

“Instead of being able to help my dad out of credit card debt, now both of us are in debt,” said Stevens, who started a new job shortly after graduation, when he became eligible for unemployment benefits.

“I’m not just some lazy teenager trying to maximize his welfare. I needed that money back then when I was in high school and I wasn’t able to get it. I’m still working, choosing to work instead of sitting around at home collecting unemployment benefits, even faced with the reality that a lot of those long, 12-hour days that I’m working could just be going to pay back DEED unless we can get this bill passed so we can support our hard-working youth.”

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