According to a proposed class action, inmates who participate in Bolduc Correctional Facility’s (BCF) work release program have been unlawfully denied unemployment benefits without due process.
Filed against Maine Governor Janet Mills and the commissioners of the state’s Department of Corrections and Department of Labor, the 19-page lawsuit explains that through the work release program, BCF inmates classified as “community custody”—the lowest security classification—are eligible to work at local businesses and receive wages. For example, the plaintiff in the case says he worked as a grill cook at a local Applebee’s until BCF’s work release program was “brought to a halt” in mid-March 2020 amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
The lawsuit alleges that although the Maine Office of the Attorney General specified in a memorandum that incarcerated individuals who previously participated in the work release program were eligible for unemployment benefits, the defendants have transferred payments for such into a separate trust and withheld distribution. According to the suit, this decision oversteps due process law and violates the individuals’ Constitutional rights.
The case says that after the COVID-19 crisis shut down local businesses and halted BCF’s work release program, 53 incarcerated individuals were deemed eligible for unemployment benefits, including the federal Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) payment. The PUA, the suit continues, adds $600 per week to individuals’ standard state benefits. In total, the individuals received an average of $3,750 per person, the case says.
In an April 29, 2020 memorandum, the Maine Office of the Attorney General acknowledged that under the state’s Employment Security Act, unemployment compensation benefits may be provided to “all workers who provide services unless there is an exception set forth in the law.” The memo further specified that the exemption for prison inmates does not apply to work release programs, the case says.
Despite the plaintiffs’ and other inmates’ legal right to unemployment payments, not to mention prison officials’ encouragement that they apply, Governor Mills on May 15, 2020 allegedly directed the Department of Corrections commissioner to place any unemployment benefits received by BCF work release program participants into a designated trust account. Further, the governor directed the Department of Labor to withhold all further unemployment benefits from the individuals, per the complaint.
The lawsuit adds that although the governor noted that unemployment benefits should be reserved for those “struggling to pay for basic necessities,” the plaintiff and other incarcerated individuals used the funds for exactly that purpose. Just as before the pandemic, the Maine Department of Corrections withheld approximately 10 percent of the individuals’ pay to cover the costs of room and board and transportation. Moreover, up to 50 percent of an inmate’s pay was also withheld for child support and up to 25 percent for fines owed by the individual, the suit states. Consequently, the case alleges, many work release program participants retained “only a small amount” of money to send to family, pay into phone accounts, or purchase soap, shampoo, toiletries, clothes, and other necessities in the BCF commissary.
“For many, the seizure of their funds has deprived them of the simple human acts of talking to their children and loved ones on the phone and purchasing personal care items at the commissary,” the complaint argues.
According to the case, the seizure of the plaintiff’s and other individual’s unemployment funds violated due process as the proposed class members were provided with neither a hearing nor any other administrative recourse by which they could challenge or appeal the governor’s decision.
“Governor Mills’s directive was not based on any legal authority,” the complaint contends, adding that only the state’s judicial branch can interpret the law and only the legislative branch can amend it. “This separation of powers is the bedrock of American democracy.”
The lawsuit looks to cover anyone currently or formerly incarcerated in Maine who was deemed eligible for unemployment benefits after the loss of their work release program employment and whose benefits were ceased due to Governor Mills’ May 15, 2020 directive.
ClassAction.org’s coverage of COVID-19 litigation can be found here and over on our Newswire.