Lawsuit seeks to reinstate federal unemployment benefits in Tennessee


Jon Styf

The Center Square

A lawsuit filed Friday in the Middle District of Tennessee is asking the court to intervene and allow Tennessee residents receiving unemployment benefits to again take part in the federal supplemental pandemic relief unemployment program.

Gov. Bill Lee

Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee, a defendant in the case, ended the state’s participation in the federal unemployment program – which pays those on unemployment $300 additional weekly through Sept. 5 – on July 4. The other defendant is Jeff McCord, Commissioner of Tennessee’s Department of Labor & Workforce Development.

The lawsuit, filed by Nashville attorney Gary Blackburn on behalf of seven citizens and a potential class that includes all Tennesseans on unemployment, says that “Because of the termination of PUA, PEUC and FPUC benefits, Plaintiffs are facing extreme hardships, such as an inability to pay for basic living expenses such as housing, utilities, food, health care, and childcare.”

Tennessee is one of 26 states whose governor elected to discontinue participation in the federal supplemental unemployment program. Many of those are states with Republican governors, though Louisiana is also joining that group on July 31 and has a Democratic governor.

When Lee was asked last week if he would consider reinstating the benefits, he said, “I do not have any plans to make a change in that direction.”

“There are half the states in this country that have suspended that and they have done so because they, like we, have 250,000 open jobs and 100,000 unemployed,” Lee said. “There are job opportunities for people in every county and every city in the state and we need to make sure that we create an environment that moves people from unemployment to meaningful employment. And that decision will do just that.”

Similar lawsuits have also been filed in Arkansas, Florida, Indiana, Maryland, Ohio, Oklahoma and Texas asking for relief on behalf of residents. Judges in Indiana and Maryland have ordered the state to re-start participation in the program pending the result of the cases.

“This program has served as a lifeline for thousands of Tennesseans who remain affected by the pandemic,” the lawsuit states. “Plaintiffs have all been adversely affected by the termination of the programs, and therefore file this complaint for declaratory judgment and for injunctive relief.”

A report from the U.S. Senate Joint Economic Committee says Tennessee will miss out on $486 million going into its local economy due to dropping out of the program early. That calculation included $302 million in supplemental unemployment payments that won’t go to Tennessee residents.

The lawsuit does not name the Tennessee residents who the complaint was filed on behalf, but instead it uses their initials with details of each case.

The plaintiffs are from Shelby, Carter, Anderson, Williamson, Davidson and Knox counties.

According to the lawsuit, one lost her job after being diagnosed with COVID-19; another has a 12-year-old son diagnosed with cancer and cannot return to the workforce; a third applied for 200 jobs without any response; a fourth has received few responses from 200 resumes sent out after her company closed in December 2020.

Several complainants also referenced having child-care issues and having difficulty finding work that was possible along with child-care responsibilities.

“Plaintiffs are facing extreme hardships, such as an inability to pay for basic living expenses such as housing, utilities, food, health care, and childcare,” the lawsuit stated.