State to repay inmates for seized unemployment benefits

Category: COVID-19 Litigation

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The state of Maine has agreed to return unemployment benefits it seized from about 50 incarcerated workers at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a news release from the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine.

The U.S. District Court in Portland received Tuesday, April 26 a request from the state to approve the settlement of a class-action lawsuit challenging the state’s seizure of unemployment benefits that had been awarded to inmates when COVID-19 forced them to leave their work-release jobs in the community.

The lawsuit was filed in June 2020 by attorney Christopher MacLean of Camden on behalf of then inmate Marc Sparks. The lawsuit asked the U.S. District Court to rule the order by Gov. Janet Mills to stop the payments was unconstitutional and asked that money seized by the state from benefits already paid be returned to the inmates.

Sparks worked 40 to 50 hours a week as a grill cook at a local Applebee’s. The work-release program helped incarcerated people, who are near the end of their sentence, make a successful transition back to their communities, the ACLU stated.

Sparks and other class members were saving up the wages they earned so they could afford stable housing, food, and other necessities upon their upcoming release. They also depended on their wages to support their families and children, many of whom are below the poverty line.

In March 2020, Sparks and the other incarcerated workers were told they could no longer work in the community due to COVID-19. The Maine Department of Labor found the workers eligible for the special COVID-19 unemployment benefits and began making weekly cash payments into their prison accounts after making deductions for room and board, child support, restitution, and other debt payments. Like millions of American workers who found themselves suddenly unemployed at the onset of the pandemic, the class members relied on unemployment benefits to care for their families and meet their basic needs.

The corrections department stopped its work release program March 16, 2020, to lessen the chance the virus could spread within the facilities, such as the Bolduc Correctional Facility in Warren, where Sparks was being housed.

The lawsuit states after the program was halted, Mae Worcester, the community programs coordinator and wife of the facility’s acting Director Russell Worcester Jr., met individually with inmates to help them apply for unemployment benefits.

Fifty-three individual inmates were determined to be eligible for unemployment benefits, including the additional $600 per week pandemic unemployment assistance payment. They were paid $198,767 in unemployment benefits which averaged out to $3,750 per inmate since mid-March.

The Labor Department, in consultation with Assistant Attorney General Nancy Macirowksi, determined the inmates would be eligible for benefits. A letter from Macirowski was sent to Labor Commissioner Laura Fortman April 29.

A spokeswoman for Mills said the governor was informed of the inmates receiving benefits at the end of April 2020. Mills notified the Labor Department to stop providing the payments, and, in a May 15 letter to Corrections Commissioner Randall Liberty, also ordered a halt to the practice.

“I not only find this appalling and to be bad public policy, I also do not believe that it was the intent of the Legislature or the Congress to allow inmates to receive state or federal benefits, including the $600 weekly PUA (pandemic unemployment assistance) payment,” Mills stated in her letter to Liberty in 2020.

The Corrections Department seized the money already paid to the inmates, placed it in another account and stopped distributing the money to the inmates.

“The purpose of the work release program and unemployment benefits is to ensure incarcerated people have access to financial security and employment when they return to their communities,” said Carol Garvan, legal director at the ACLU of Maine in the April 26, 2022 news release. “Our communities are safer when formerly incarcerated people have a foundation for a successful return home.”

The settlement returns the unemployment benefits seized from the workers’ prison accounts and recognizes that the money in their prison accounts is their property — meaning that the State can’t seize money from these accounts without due process.

“Everyone — including an incarcerated worker — is entitled to equal protection and fair treatment under the law, said David Webbert, managing partner at Johnson & Webbert, who serves as co-counsel in the lawsuit. “The settlement helps ensure that the State treats every Mainer with respect and dignity and that we don’t have any second-class people with second-class rights.”

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