Sugar Law Center Fights Back on Behalf of the Unemployed
By Tony Paris, Lead Attorney of the Sugar Law Center for Economic and Social Justice
As attacks on organized labor continue and the “employment at-will” doctrine wreaks havoc on America’s working class, corporations have broadened their attacks on workers to include new challenges to the unemployment benefits of those who have been laid off or otherwise lost employment through no fault of their own. It is now commonplace for these employers to use multi-million dollar human resource “payroll management” agencies like TALX or Paychex to handle these challenges within applicable state agencies and to also use high level attorneys in administrative hearings and appeals. The result is that benefits that are an essential safety net for working people are now in jeopardy – facing unnecessary delays, judicial hearings, and legislative attacks.
Over the past two years, Sugar Law has represented dozens of food service workers at colleges throughout the state of Michigan who face denial of “underemployment” benefits they normally collect during reduced summer schedules where there are less enrolled students. This is primarily the result of a Michigan law passed in late 2011 that extends the “school denial period,” normally only applicable to grade school teachers who are off for summer vacation, to any employee who works for a company that contracts with any educational institution. This law has unfairly included year-round employees in food service, maintenance, and landscaping. These employees often work for companies that have received contracts with schools following the privatization of previously public union jobs. Workers are still required to work throughout the summer, but are only assigned hours based on demand, and thus they depend on partial unemployment benefits to make ends meet until they are full-time again the next semester. Sugar Law Center has prevailed in roughly fifty administrative hearings and court appeals on the issue and is working with United Here Local 24 to organize and collectively bargain around the issue.
On a broader note, Sugar Law is also involved in a constitutional challenge to the criminalization of unemployment insurance filings in Michigan. This often occurs when minor discrepancies arise between employee and employer answers to ambiguously worded fact-finding questions on certain forms. The state now commonly charges that the employee committed “fraud” or “misrepresentation” when such discrepancies arise. Under current state law, such a charge carries a restitution penalty of triple the amount of collected benefits. Many of these cases now also result in criminal charges without any prior civil administrative hearing or determination. However, when it becomes clear that it was the employer who was not truthful in their submission, no such determination/charge/penalty are issued.
Because these cases often involve relatively low amounts of potential recovery in the form of back benefits, or alternatively, the dismissal of restitution for previously awarded benefits, it is difficult for workers to retain a private attorney who can dedicate the time and expertise to properly litigate each stage of an appeal. As part of our “Job Loss Fairness” campaign, the Sugar Law Center takes these cases and we are often the last resort for these claimants to turn to.