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Incarcerated Mainers to get back unemployment benefits seized by the state

Joel Page
Associated Press
Corrections officers and female inmates are seen Friday, Sept. 5, 2003, at the Maine Correctional Center in Windham, Maine.

Maine will return unemployment benefits paid to about 50 incarcerated workers who lost work-release jobs during the pandemic.

The Maine Department of Labor initially granted unemployment benefits to the workers when they were forced to leave their jobs at the start of the pandemic in March 2020. But the benefits were removed from their accounts six weeks later with no notice or opportunity to appeal, according to a class action lawsuit.

Incarcerated workers brought their case to federal district court in Maine, and the state has agreed to settle. It will return the benefits, worth about $163,000, to the workers following final approval from the court, according to the settlement agreement. The state additionally has agreed to pay about $200,000 in legal fees related to the case.

"This agreement has a recognition by the defendants in the case that the money that was deposited in the workers' accounts — and in general money for incarcerated workers that's in their accounts — is recognized by the state as a protected property interest," said Carol Garvan, the legal director for ACLU Maine who represented the plaintiffs in the case. "Because of that recognition that gives the individuals protection from government seizure without due process."

The lead plaintiff in the case was Marc Sparks, who worked 40-50 hours a week as a grill cook for Applebee's through a work-release program before the pandemic began.

"This is a really smart program that Maine should be proud of," David Webbert, managing partner for Johnson & Webbert who served as co-counsel in the lawsuit. "These are real jobs in the private sector."

The state denied the plaintiffs' allegations, according to the settlement agreement. But it concluded that "further litigation would be protracted, expensive and would divert the valuable time and attention of their management and employees," the agreement reads.

Garvan estimated it would take another 6-9 months until the court grants final approval. From there, state will have 21 days to issue payments. Most of the plaintiffs have been released from incarceration, Garvan added.

"Getting this money now, these workers are going to be able to use this money for stable housing, for getting back on their feet and for reentering their communities," she said.

Corrected: April 27, 2022 at 10:14 AM EDT
The state has agreed to return about $163,000 in unemployment benefits and pay $200,000 in legal fees related to the case, not nearly $370,000 in benefits.