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Judge Rules Indiana Can't Back Out Pandemic-Era Programs For Jobless Workers

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

About two dozen Republican-led states are ending federal unemployment benefits. Governors in those states claim it keeps employers from filling open jobs. Now Indiana is being told by a judge it can't legally do that. As Indiana Public Broadcasting's Justin Hicks reports, that court order is inspiring others across the country to consider filing their own lawsuits.

JUSTIN HICKS, BYLINE: Mary McCloskey is the creator of a Facebook group for unemployed workers in Indiana, and to say she was in a good mood last Friday is an understatement.

MARY MCCLOSKEY: I'm so excited. I am so excited. I feel justified, finally, after a whole year (laughter) - a whole year of fighting with this, and it's - I feel great, so great.

HICKS: She had just found out that a judge told Indiana officials they cannot back out of pandemic era programs for jobless workers. McCloskey says that's a major win for workers who struggle to get through a clogged unemployment system only to have benefits yanked away before Congress's September 4 cutoff.

MCCLOSKEY: They finally are feeling some kind of justice, some kind of vindication that what they've been seeing and what they've been feeling is actually - you know, somebody's being held accountable.

HICKS: Indiana's court order is only temporary. Policymakers here haven't announced any plans to actually follow through with restarting benefit programs. But it comes as some, like economist Michael Strain with the American Enterprise Institute, argue that these enhanced benefits are getting in the way of states' economies recovering quickly.

MICHAEL STRAIN: Many states have an unemployment rate below 6%. Some have an unemployment rate below 5%. You know, in a situation like that, you're just holding - you're holding your state back, and you're, you know, making it harder for unemployed workers to get jobs by having unemployment benefits that are as generous as they are with the $300 supplement. So from a policy perspective, I think the injunction sets Indiana back.

HICKS: But the Indiana court's recent decision is motivating unemployed workers across the country to start combing through their own state laws.

RACHEL DEUTSCH: People are considering, you know, filing their own lawsuits, which is not generally a super successful approach. But folks are really inspired by this example in Indiana and hoping to find similar legal grounds in their states.

HICKS: That's Rachel Deutsch, who's with the Center for Popular Democracy. She says people are looking to sue as a last resort since federal officials are apparently letting states opt out of extended benefits.

DEUTSCH: People who receive that money need it and spend it, you know, locally. And so there was just a major sort of disbelief, right? How can the federal government allow this to happen?

HICKS: In Maryland, a group calling itself the Unemployed Workers Union felt that disbelief, too. But organizer Sharon Black said Indiana gave them hope.

SHARON BLACK: A lot of people here in this state were definitely buoyed by the suit that was taking place in Indiana. So it kind of spurred us on in many respects.

HICKS: Black says they've fought Governor Larry Hogan's decision to opt out of federal benefits, but he hasn't been swayed to their argument. While Black hopes for an injunction like that in Indiana, she has a healthy skepticism that it'll work. A former civil rights and labor activist, she's learned to take a victory where you can.

BLACK: Sometimes people just need hope. Can't eat hope, but at least it can keep you going till you get that meal.

HICKS: If the Indiana ruling provides hope, they may want to hang on tightly. Officials here are asking for an emergency appeal of the court order as they again try to make the case that restarting extended unemployment benefits would hurt Indiana's economic recovery.

For NPR News, I'm Justin Hicks.

(SOUNDBITE OF LEGENDARY SKIES' "WORDS ECHOING FROM TEACHERS PAST") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.