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Job requirements to receive food stamps challenged

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — A nonprofit is accusing the New Mexico Human Services Department of imposing illegally harsh rules on food stamp recipients earlier this month and has asked a federal judge to halt them, saying they violate an ongoing consent decree.

HSD rules effective Jan. 1 in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program mean more than 17,000 New Mexicans will be limited to three months of aid if they can’t find a 20-hour-a-week job or a qualifying job-training program, according to the request for injunctive relief filed Wednesday in federal court by the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty.

The center has asked U.S. District Judge Kenneth Gonzales for a fast-track hearing on the matter.

Federal law requires states to have employment and training programs to help qualifying households attain employment skills and imposes sanctions for noncompliance. But it also allows waivers in states with high unemployment, and New Mexico’s unemployment rate is the highest in the nation, the filing says.

HSD chose not to renew the waiver for the first time this year, it says.

And the new regulations restrict eligibility in violation of federal law, such as by not exempting the training requirement for someone caring for an incapacitated person, it says.

Center attorneys cite examples of clients such as Robert Jenkins, who is chronically homeless, has mental health problems and relies on SNAP benefits to eat. He was contacted by a worker who told him he had to come to the Income Support Division and volunteer 20 hours a week to continue getting benefits, and he was scheduled for an orientation four days later that he couldn’t attend.

Attorneys at the Center on Law and Poverty told Jenkins his impairments and homelessness make him unfit for work and eligible for continued aid, but his exemption still never got noted in the case file maintained by the state, the court filing says.

Another man applied for benefits after being fired when the employer learned he didn’t have a high school diploma. An eligibility worker told him he would have to do unpaid work to obtain food assistance, but he never was given information about how to prove he’s complying with the requirements, according to the pleading.

HSD spokesman Kyler Nerison said in a statement Wednesday that “the new work requirements for SNAP benefits bring the state into alignment with federal regulations and will help people build job skills, find employment and become self-sufficient. These are the same broad-based work or job search requirements that have existed for years in most New Mexico public assistance programs. These requirements are bipartisan – they were signed into law by President Bill Clinton.”

Nerison also said HSD “will continue to provide assistance finding work or job training opportunities to those in need.”