Ellana Tsethlikai relied on food assistance while completing her GED degree. The food aid also helped her afford housing while she pursued a certificate in office technology. But over the past year, the state has sent her “conflicting and confusing notices” about how to receive her food benefits through the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, according to a federal lawsuit filed Wednesday against the state.

The New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty, an Albuquerque-based nonprofit, is asking a federal judge to issue an injunction that would temporarily prevent Gov. Susana Martinez’s administration from implementing new rules that tie food assistance to employment. The filing is part of a decades-old federal case in which the state agreed to improve how it communicates with low-income New Mexicans about potential public benefits, such as food assistance.

The lawsuit, which accuses the state Human Services Department of sending incorrect notices about the new work rules that went into effect Jan. 1 and says the state is failing to notify people that they may qualify for work exemptions, provides a troubling glimpse into the department’s administration of the food aid program. It paints a picture of a department and a contractor putting red tape between monthly food assistance that more than 420,000 New Mexicans — such as Tsethlikai — rely upon in a state with the nation’s highest rates of poverty and unemployment.

The suit asks the court to determine whether the department is violating the federal consent decree “as well as other federal law by illegally preventing eligible New Mexicans from obtaining food assistance.”

Sovereign Hager, a staff attorney for the center, said Wednesday that the Human Services Department has shown “a lack of attention to real issues that people in the state of New Mexico deal with,” such as hunger and unemployment.

Human Services spokesman Kyler Nerison said the agency disagrees that its implementation of the new work rules violates federal law. “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,” he said in a statement. “These are the same broad-based work or job search requirements that have existed for years in most New Mexico public assistance programs.”

But the Center on Law and Poverty, in its lawsuit, accuses the department of failing to exempt people who serve as caretakers from the work rules; telling food aid recipients they must provide verification of their work hours each month rather than just once, at the beginning of the application period; failing to exempt New Mexicans who can’t afford the costs of participating in employment and training programs; failing to verify a participant’s compliance with the work rules through an electronic database; and having conflicting implementation dates for the new rules.

The lawsuit also alleges the department is not training its employees on how to screen food aid applicants for possible exemptions from the new work rules and that SL Start, a contractor that runs the employment program, also has not been telling food aid applicants about exemptions.

“For example, someone who became pregnant or started going to school part time would become exempt from the requirement and have no way of knowing,” the lawsuit says.

Tsethlikai in January attended an orientation for the department’s work program run by Washington state-based SL Start, according to the lawsuit. There, she was presented a list of available work sites and was asked to work at Donut Mart in Albuquerque because it’s close to her home. But she was never told when or how to complete her required 25 work hours per month. Nobody gave her a time sheet to log those hours or provided her with reasons she might be exempt from completing them, the lawsuit says.

And after telling a department employee about several barriers she faced to completing the work hours — including lack of transportation, housing issues and a legal history — the Human Services employee “documented that Ms. Tsethlikai had no barriers,” the lawsuit alleges.

It also says the Human Services Department published different versions of its new work rules in the New Mexico Administrative Code and the New Mexico Register, and it says both versions of the rules violate federal law and the federal court decree.

The complaint alleges that in November, the Human Services Department began sending food aid recipients incorrect notices about the work rules. For instance, one notice states that adults ages 16 to 60 were required to register for the department’s employment and training program.

“This is wrong because there have not been and are not [employment and training] requirements for adults other than 18-50 year olds who are not living in a household with a minor,” the lawsuit states.

On Nov. 12, the lawsuit alleges, the Human Services Department sent notices to all New Mexicans in the SNAP program — more than 420,000 people — that said they were required to comply with work rules to get the benefits, even though the new rules affect only about 17,500 food aid recipients.

The suit says the notice failed to explain that it was intended to give benefit recipients more time to comply with new rules taking effect at a later time, and it “illegally informed all SNAP participants that if they do not meet all the requirements they ‘may lose SNAP for up to three years.’ ”

The suit says, “The loss of food benefits will likely cause serious hardship and hunger. New Mexico has one of the highest rates of food insecurity in the United States and the highest unemployment rate in the United States. Issuing an injunction ensures that unemployed adults and their families have continued access to federal food assistance in this environment while the motion is pending.”

Justin Horwath can be reached at 986-3017 or jhorwath@sfnewmexican.com.

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