Appeals Court overturns unemployment benefits ban on personal care attendants

The Minnesota Court of Appeals today overturned a Minnesota law that bans people who care for immediate family members as personal care attendants (PCA) from seeking unemployment benefits.

The court ruled in the case of James Weir, who began taking care of his mother in 2010 as a personal care assistant employed through ACCRA Care, Inc.

When she died in 2011, Weir applied for unemployment benefits, but the state Department of Employment and Economic Development denied his claim because the Legislature amended the state’s unemployment-insurance statutes to include “employment of an individual who provides direct care to an immediate family member funded through the personal care assistance program” under employment that is considered “uncovered” by unemployment benefits.

But the court today overturned the ruling, saying it violates Minnesota’s equal protection clause because it treats people differently.

Judge Jill Flaskamp Halbrooks cited a previous Supreme Court ruling that threw out laws providing for different penalties for cocaine possession, depending on whether it was in powder form or crack form. In that case, the court said, there was no real proof that someone possessing crack was more likely to be a street dealer, and the law can’t treat people differently based only on a supposition.

The court said the Legislature amended the law on PCAs in the belief that someone caring for a family member would be more inclined to commit fraud.

Here is what the court said DEED claimed:

… applicants would front-load all of the approved hours during any given six-month period, claiming that they worked extraordinarily high hours during the early weeks or months, and then collect unemployment benefits during the remainder of the time period. . . . These PCAs then collected both wages and unemployment benefits every year, which required the complicity of their family member clients. . . .

While such manipulation would also theoretically be possible in non-family settings, it is substantially less likely. Non-family clients would have no motivation to seek unemployment benefits for unrelated PCAs, nor would they be likely to report that all of their care hours had been used up early in the six-month period, risking that the non-relative PCA would not follow through on the bargain, and continue showing up to provide care even after the hours were reported and the wages were paid.

But the Court of Appeals said there is no proof to DEED’s theory, and said legislators relied purely on assumptions rather than facts. And, the court said, there are already penalties for committing fraud in unemployment claims and there’s no indication they are insufficient.

To deny unemployment benefits to everyone caring for a family member in the belief that they’re more likely to commit fraud is unconstitutional, the judge said.

Here’s the full opinion.