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State Supreme Court Referee Hears Arguments In Cases Related To End Of Federal Unemployment Payments

Oklahoma Capitol

Parties to two lawsuits over the state’s early end to enhanced federal unemployment benefits made their arguments on Wednesday before an Oklahoma Supreme Court referee.

One of those lawsuits was decided in Oklahoma County district court last week, when a judge ordered the state to reinstate the program. Oklahoma Employment Security Commission Executive Director Shelley Zumwalt wants the state supreme court to overturn that ruling.

"If Director Zumwalt was in violation of statute when she acted unilaterally to enter these programs or exit these programs, then how can she be ordered now to enter them after the fact? It’s internally inconsistent. It really should be the commission being ordered or something else. The governor’s not even a party to the district court case," said Andy Ferguson in the attorney general’s office solicitor general unit, who is representing Zumwalt.

Attorney Chad Smith represents some of the original petitioners. He said without the enhanced benefits, thousands of Oklahomans must choose between staying safe amid rising coronavirus numbers and paying their bills.

"The whole public policy behind the CARES Act is help those people struggling to get by because of the economy and because of the hardships of corona with unemployment benefits," Smith said.

The other lawsuit has 10 petitioners suing Gov. Kevin Stitt and the OESC. They claim Stitt overstepped his legal authority when he ended the benefits in June. Their attorney, Mark Hammons, said while the federal government vests executive power in the president, Oklahoma government treats the governor more like a manager of various departments the legislature has set guidelines for.

"He does not have the authority to set benefits. He does not have the authority to set the tax rate for the state’s contribution to the benefit funds. He does not have the authority to determine the eligibility procedures or how the appeals will be handled," Hammons said.

Petitioners cite state unemployment law saying the governor must act to maximize benefits for Oklahomans. Ferguson said that does not apply to pandemic unemployment programs funded by the CARES Act.

"They want those, but these are optional programs under federal law. I want to make this very clear: The amounts and duration of these benefits are entirely new. Right? They are not our unemployment, our standard unemployment benefits. That’s not what they are," Ferguson said.

The referee promised to make a report to the court quickly because of the time-sensitive nature of the decision but added he could not promise a timeline for a ruling.

Zumwalt and Stitt announced in June they would offer a $1,200 "back to work" incentive instead of the additional $300 a week in federal benefits. The CARES Act unemployment benefits are currently set to expire Sept. 6.

Matt Trotter joined KWGS as a reporter in 2013. Before coming to Public Radio Tulsa, he was the investigative producer at KJRH. His freelance work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times and on MSNBC and CNN.
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