The West Virginia Supreme Court will determine whether the State of West Virginia will have to reinstate its participation in federal unemployment support.
The court also will determine whether West Virginia Insurance Commissioner Scott Adkins violated state law when he ended Workforce West Virginia’s participation in federal COVID-19 unemployment benefit programs, in an appeal filed with the court on Tuesday, four days after a Kanawha circuit judge denied an injunction to force the state to reinstate the federal unemployment support.
Attorneys for Rebecca Urie and Kimberly Griffith filed an appeal with the Supreme Court challenging Kanawha Circuit Judge Maryclaire Akers’s ruling to deny an injunction to force Workforce West Virginia to continue to provide the unemployment benefits established under the federal CARES Act in March 2020 and extended in the American Rescue Plan Act in March 2021.
On May 14, Gov. Jim Justice announced he was ordering federal pandemic unemployment support be stopped. The state stopped administering the benefits on June 19.
The federal government is set to stop administering the COVID-related unemployment benefits next month.
In her order on Aug. 24, Akers said a temporary restraining order against Workforce West Virginia wasn’t appropriate because Urie and Griffith were trying to affect an event that already occurred: the termination of the state’s participation in the federal pandemic unemployment support.
Akers also said that while state law requires an insurance commissioner to “secure all advantages available,” state law doesn’t define “advantages” as it relates to federal government resources.
Akers said separation of powers prevented her from forcing the insurance commissioner to reinstate the unemployment support, saying the question of whether to reinstate the support was a political one and not at the court’s discretion to answer.
“To issue [an order] in this matter would require the Court to act as a sort of ‘Super Commissioner’ by overturning the Commissioner’s policy decision on an issue that he Legislature has left to his discretion and substituting a different policy decision in its place,” Akers said in her order.
Urie and Griffith filed their original petition on July 27. They are being represented by Bren Pomponio and Laura Davidson with Mountain State Justice.
They asked Akers to rule that Adkins had violated the state’s unemployment compensation law, which requires an insurance commissioner to secure “all advantages” available in the federal unemployment.
Urie is a single mother to two children, ages 19 and 8, both of whom have been diagnosed with autism. Prior to the pandemic, Urie worked two jobs — at a laboratory in South Charleston and another with the food delivery service DoorDash.
In March 2020, the laboratory she worked for closed and laid off all its employees. She stopped delivering DoorDash due to concerns about COVID-19.
She said she submits about 25 job applications per month, but is told she is overqualified or positions for jobs have been filled.
“Due to the State’s early termination of her federal benefits, Ms. Urie and her oldest child worry about our [sic] finances and whether or not they will still have a house to live in,” Pomponio wrote in the petition.
Griffith worked as a driver for Moses Auto Outlet four or five days a week, but the company has only scheduled her to work a handful of days since March 2020.
Griffith said she actively sought employment, but has not been able to secure a second job.
Since losing the federal unemployment benefits, Griffith has used support from the Department of Housing and Urban Development, as well as food stamps, to pay rent and eat, but she has had to borrow money from her elderly parents to pay her bills.
Representing the State of West Virginia, Senior Deputy Attorney General Brent Wolfinbarger presented evidence during a hearing Aug. 16 that one non-violent felony conviction on Urie’s record, as well as not having a valid West Virginia driver’s license, may have prevented her from being eligible to receive the benefits.
He also presented evidence that Griffith had failed to report income while receiving the federal benefits, and had lost them prior to the State terminating them.
The case had not been scheduled for a hearing before the Supreme Court Thursday, according to the court’s docket on the West Virginia Supreme Court website.