FILE - NH Chris Sununu 2-11-2021

New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu delivers his budget address Feb. 11, 2021.

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(The Center Square) – New Hampshire is being sued by a group of residents over Gov. Chris Sununu's decision to end the state's participation in federal jobless programs.

Sununu ended participation in the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program – and a $300 per week added federal benefit – in June as the state announced plans to lift remaining COVID-19 restrictions. The Republican said the move was needed to ease a post-pandemic hiring crunch and rebuild the state's economy by getting more people back to work.

But a new legal challenge, filed in state Superior Court on behalf of four unemployed workers, alleges that the state didn't have the authority to end participation in the federal programs.

The lawsuit, which names Employment Security Commissioner George Copadis as the chief defendant, asks the court to reinstate PUA benefits in New Hampshire and provide back pay to about 15,000 eligible participants.

"The commissioner has no discretion to abandon his statutory requirements to secure for New Hampshire citizens all advantages available under the Social Security act, including PUA benefits," Attorney Mike Perez, who represents the workers, wrote in the 17-page complaint.

One of the plaintiffs, Cassandra Caron, lost her job as a cosmetologist during the pandemic and began receiving PUA benefits to cover rent, food, utility bills and other basic expenses.

But when the state ended its participation in PUA on June 19, the single mother said she has been unable to find another "suitable job" or provide for her family, the lawsuit alleges.

"With dwindling savings and no income, Cassandra made a difficult choice to apply for disability benefits based on her traumatic brain injury, PTSD, and Type II narcolepsy," the complaint reads. "The early termination of PUA benefits actually helped remove Cassandra from the workforce."

Another plaintiff, Aaron Shelton, is a self-employed social media marketer whose work up dried during the pandemic, forcing him to seek federal unemployment benefits.

PUA covered his basic living expenses – such as car payments, food, utilities and rent – but when those benefits were cut off in June, he had to tap into his savings to stay afloat. Now he's running out of money, according to the lawsuit.

New Hampshire is one of 26 states that ended pandemic unemployment programs early, which has prompted a flurry of legal challenges.

To date, the Granite State has paid out more than $1.8 billion in federal and state jobless benefits since March 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic began.

PUA was created to provide jobless benefits to "gig economy" workers and others who didn't qualify for regular state unemployment benefits. It is one of several other federal unemployment programs that are set to expire on Sept. 6, absent congressional action.

The lawsuit notes that the U.S. Department of Labor is allowing states to reinstate participation in PUA and other programs even as it expires, "including back benefits to eligible claimants."

Lawsuits filed in several states, including Arkansas and Oklahoma, have successfully forced officials to provide PUA back pay to those who are eligible for the benefits but were cut off.

Still, judges in other states – including West Virginia and Louisiana – have rejected similar legal claims from PUA jobless beneficiaries.

The Sununu administration criticized the lawsuit as "a political stunt" in a statement to local news outlets, pointing out that the move to end PUA was supported by both political parties.

"The state gave citizens over a month's notice, as required by the contract with the U.S. Department of Labor," Sununu spokesman Benjamin Vihstadt said. "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."

This article originally ran on thecentersquare.com.

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