When Clara Peterkin got wind of a new virus outbreak, she never dreamed it would lead to her being unemployed. But soon after COVID-19 began to dominate the headlines in the U.S., she found herself laid off and looking for a new job.
“It was unexpected,” said Ms. Peterkin, who worked at a law firm in South Carolina until just two weeks ago.
Peterkin is among the 18% of American workers who have recently lost their job due to the COVID-19 outbreak.
“During the week ending March 14, the increase in initial claims are clearly attributable to impacts from the COVID-19 virus,” according to a Department of Labor statement posted online.
Some 281,000 Americans filed initial unemployment claims that week, up 70,000 from the previous week and the highest for initial claims since September 2017, according to Department of Labor data.
“More and more people don’t have the money to afford food because of the economic consequences of the coronavirus outbreak,” said Dorothy Roberts, a University of Pennsylvania School of Law professor. “It’s urgent to make people eligible for food aid when they need it.”
That’s why a district judge in Washington, D.C., blocked a U.S. Department of Agriculture final rule that would have tightened work requirements under the Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 to obtain meal assistance for able-bodied people.
“As a global pandemic poses widespread health risks, guaranteeing that government officials at both the federal and state levels have the flexibility to address the nutritional needs of residents and ensure their well-being through programs like SNAP, is essential,” wrote Chief Judge Beryl A. Howell in her March 13 memorandum opinion granting a preliminary injunction.
“The state plaintiffs’ and private plaintiffs’ motions for a preliminary injunction and a stay pending judicial review are granted as to the challenged waiver portions of the Final Rule,” wrote the Honorable Judge Howell. “USDA will be preliminarily enjoined from implementing the challenged waiver portions of the Final Rule.”
Formerly known as food stamps, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) serves more than one million individuals currently, according to Judge Howell.
Had the request for an injunction been denied, some 700,000 Americans would have been ineligible to receive food stamps on April 1 due to new work requirements.
“The injunction will have a significant impact on the current difficult COVID-19 climate,” said Israel Klein, an attorney with Pardalis & Nohavicka in Manhattan. “Notably, it will allow hundreds of millions of individuals to continue to receive essential food assistance at a time when financial pressures are mounting.”
The USDA Final Rule required an unemployment rate of 6% in order for applicants to receive a work requirement waiver.
“The unemployment rate, whether it’s 6% or 1%, doesn’t tell you about the ability of an individual, such as those on SNAP, to secure gainful employment,” said Professor Roberts. “For example, Americans currently on food assistance who could have been kicked off in April are disproportionately black and face racial discrimination in finding a job.”
Thirteen states, the District of Columbia, the City of New York and Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel sued the USDA, alleging that the proposed final rule interferes with their ability to distribute food assistance equitably.
“The proposed [final]rule noted that while it was likely to have a disparate effect on minorities, USDA found that the implementation of mitigation strategies and monitoring by the Civil Rights Division of U.S. Food & Nutrition Service (FNS) will lessen these impacts,” wrote the plaintiff’s attorney in the state’s complaint. “The Proposed Rule did not explain what implementation or mitigation strategies USDA would take to reduce the disparate impact.”
Experts, however, believe there is a greater problem to the proposed final rule that is societal in nature.
“There are deep divisions about what it means to have a true democracy with equal participation, equal opportunities and freedom for everyone with some people ignoring the profound inequalities that exist and others being energized now more than ever to fight for radical change,” Professor Roberts told PacerMonitor News.
The coronavirus, according to experts, is just forcing the government to deal with problems that have always lurked beneath the surface.
“The pandemic is accentuating structural inequities that have long existed but could also usher in social transformation that includes universal free healthcare, ensuring everyone has resources needed to support themselves and their families and creating solutions to social problems that don’t rely on incarceration and punishment,” said Professor Roberts.
In the meantime, Judge Howell’s preliminary injunction will go forward with a trial but could easily be halted on appeal if the federal government files for one.
Until then, the injunction serves to relieve states’ administrative burdens and costs to provide alternative mechanisms to meet the work requirements, including costs for staffing and training, notification and for expanding employment programs.
“This will free up states’ limited resources for allocation in much needed areas to provide medical aid and combat the current economic downturn,” Mr. Klein told PacerMonitor News.