NASHUA — Cassandra Caron of Manchester worked as a cosmetologist at Sports Clips in Concord until COVID-19 took away her job in March 2020.
Though the salon reopened two months later, there wasn’t enough work to bring her back, she said.
The federal Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program (PUA) became a lifeline for this single mother and assault victim until Gov. Chris Sununu decided to terminate those benefits early last June 19.
Caron was one of four residents who last Friday brought suit against the Sununu administration, asking a judge to overturn this decision and reward back pay for as many as 15,000 cut off from the program.
“With dwindling savings and no income, Cassandra made the difficult choice to apply for disability benefits based on her traumatic brain injury, PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder), and Type II narcolepsy,” lawyers for these clients said in the suit brought in Hillsborough County Superior Court South.
“The early termination of PUA benefits actually helped remove Cassandra from the workforce.”
The lawsuit takes direct aim at eliminating this program, designed for workers who don’t normally qualify for federal jobless benefits.
In response to COVID-19, Congress in March 2020 created the PUA for the self-employed, independent contractors, gig workers, and those who started a job too recently to receive traditional unemployment checks.
Lawyers for those bringing this claim said they were optimistic about their chances because judges in four states have overturned these decisions in states where Republican governors have brought to an early end the extra, $300-per-week benefits for those on the unemployment rolls.
“What’s unique about this program, unlike the other types, is that PUA is a mandatory program. Neither state nor federal law gives N.H. Employment Security the authority to abandon PUA before it expires,” said Mike Perez, the lawyer representing these residents.
“The law says that the state shall participate.”
New Hampshire was the only state in the Northeast to end the benefits early.
As of mid-June, Sununu also ended the state’s participation in two other unemployment programs, including one that offered an extra $300 per week for all those who receive traditional unemployment.
Sununu said providing these additional benefits became a disincentive for some to reenter the job market and this made worse the chronic workforce shortage facing the state during the summer tourism season.
Sununu’s office calls suit ‘political stunt’
Benjamin Vihstadt, the governor’s spokesman, called the suit a “political stunt.”
“Over three months ago when the state announced we would be ending participation in the enhanced federal unemployment benefits it was met with resounding support from people across the aisle,” Vihstadt said in a statement.
“The state gave citizens over a month’s notice, as required by the contract with the U.S. Department of Labor. This lawsuit, filed less than two weeks before the federal programs expire, is nothing more than a political stunt as the state moves forward with one of the fastest rebounding economies in the country.”
A DES official referred all questions to the office of Attorney General John Formella. “We received the complaint this afternoon and we are reviewing it,” said Kate Giaquinto, the AG’s director of communications.
Hearing set for this Friday
An initial hearing on this lawsuit is set for this Friday.
The other residents who brought suit are Alison Petrowski of Manchester, Brandon Deane of Dover and Aaron Shelton of Merrimack. Deane was a self-employed contractor, Petrowski worked as a website content creator, and Shelton provided social media marketing for small businesses.
According to the suit, Petrowski said she was fired because she couldn’t return to work soon enough as three of her family members had asthma and her husband was immunocompromised.
She will soon start a job making half what she had made prior to the pandemic.
Deane’s business has reopened, but at a reduced income and he’s had to live off his savings.
Shelton said he’s had to sell collectibles to stay afloat and expects to go through all his savings by the end of this month.
Republican governors in 26 states ended early the extra unemployment and they got rid of the PUA program in 22 states.
This is the 15th lawsuit brought against them.
Judges in Maryland, Arkansas, Oklahoma and Indiana have overturned decisions to end unemployment in those states, and have ordered back pay be made to the affected individuals.
Lawsuits in West Virginia, Ohio and Louisiana have failed, and the suits in all other states are pending.