The Arkansas legislature stuck it to constituents across the board last week by upholding both a ban on mask mandates in schools and the governor’s decision to deny pandemic federal unemployment benefits.

But a judge already put a stop to the mask mandate ban, and the unemployment situation could change soon, too.

Advertisement

Kevin De Liban, the director of advocacy for Legal Aid of Arkansas, said there’s still a chance that the 69,000 Arkansans who lost 10 weeks of federal COVID unemployment benefits could still access some of that money eventually.

De Liban is an attorney on the case, and Pulaski Circuit Judge Herb Wright issued an injunction July 29 to force the governor and the Division of Workforce Services to resume participation in three pandemic unemployment programs, one paying an extra $300 a week. Governor Hutchinson ordered the payments to stop at the end of June, 10 weeks early, claiming it would force people to go back to work.

Advertisement

De Liban said he doesn’t believe the legislature’s vote to turn back the federal funds can be applied retroactively, nor does he believe the new law passed last week negates Wright’s ruling. The issue remains gummed up in the courts, De Liban explained, but Legal Aid is pushing for a quick decision.

On Thursday, 8/5, the Arkansas Supreme Court issued a stay of the injunction, meaning the state doesn’t have to comply with Judge Wright’s order to reinstate benefits while its appeal is pending. The Supreme Court didn’t decide whether Judge Wright’s decision to issue the injunction is valid, which is the question on appeal. Under normal circumstances, consideration of the appeal would take at least four months (and potentially much longer). Because of the hardships involved for our clients, Legal Aid filed an emergency motion yesterday asking the Supreme Court to expedite its consideration of the case to make a decision before September 6 or as soon as possible afterwards. The Supreme Court should decide our request to expedite by early next week. 

What happens if the courts don’t make a call before Sept. 6, the date the federal unemployment benefits in question are set to expire? That remains unclear, De Liban said.

Advertisement

The U.S. Department of Labor has not definitively stated what will happen when the programs expire on September 6. And, there could be differences between the programs such that PUA may be treated differently from FPUC (the $300 supplement) and PEUC (extension of benefits for people whose regular UI has run out). But, it seems that the likelihood of getting benefits decreases the further past September things go.