Gov. Bill at a July 2021 press conference.(Photo: John Partipilo)
A group of Tennesseans is suing Gov. Bill Lee for stopping federal unemployment benefits two months early, saying they need the money to survive.
Represented by Nashville attorney Gary Blackburn, residents from Shelby, Carter, Knox, Davidson and Williamson counties filed the class action lawsuit Wednesday in U.S. District Court in Nashville against the governor and Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development Commissioner Jeff McCord after the governor ended federal benefits designed to help people pay bills during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Lee has said Tennessee has more than 250,000 jobs open and that people need to go back to work.UnemploymentSuit
One of the plaintiffs from Shelby County was diagnosed with COVID-19 and was unable to work. She was receiving federal unemployment compensation until being cut off by the state.
“Without the benefits, C.M. is facing eviction and having her utilities cut off,” the lawsuit states.
Plaintiffs identified as J.H. and R.H. of Carter County worked until they were forced to “avoid” their jobs because of health concerns. They were receiving $378 a week, before the program’s termination, to pay for food, housing and transportation, in addition to treatment for their 12-year-old son, who was diagnosed with cancer before the pandemic.
Because the federal unemployment benefits are cut off, J.H. has to return to work at “significant risk” to his life and the potential for bringing home an infection and threatening his wife.
“They have been rationing food and separating meals in order to feed their son,” the lawsuit states.
Plaintiffs will include those stopped from receiving three types of federal dollars, pandemic unemployment assistance under the state unemployment insurance program, pandemic emergency unemployment compensation, which was extended regular unemployment benefits to workers who had exhausted unemployment insurance benefits and federal pandemic unemployment compensation, which increased unemployment insurance benefits by $600 weekly starting on March 27, 2020.
Those programs were extended through Sept. 6 by the American Rescue Plan in March after being approved as part of the CARES Act a year earlier.
In May, Gov. Lee announced the end of all federally funded unemployment, effective July 3, notifying the federal government.
“We will no longer participate in federal pandemic unemployment programs because Tennesseans have access to more than 250,000 jobs in our state. Families, businesses and our economy thrive when we focus on meaningful employment and move on from short-term, federal fixes,” he said in a statement.
The lawsuit claims plaintiffs are facing “extreme hardships” such as the inability to pay for housing, utilities, food, health care and child care.
The lawsuit document says it was filed July 23. The Governor’s Office said it does not comment on pending litigation. Spokeswoman Casey Black said the Governor’s Office has not been served.
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