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Hospitality Workers Protest End Of Jobless Benefits

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Rachel Baye
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WYPR
Andre Eldridge works at the Marriott in Baltimore's Harbor East neighborhood. He said he has only been able to work one day in the last month, so he relies on unemployment benefits to pay his rent and utilities.

When Gov. Larry Hogan announced earlier this week that he is cutting off pandemic-related unemployment benefits on July 3, about two months before the federal money paying for them is set to expire, he attributed the move to a healthy job market.

“While these federal programs provided important temporary relief, vaccines and jobs are now in good supply,” he said in a statement. “And we have a critical problem where businesses across our state are trying to hire more people, but many are facing severe worker shortages.”

However, that hasn’t been Shaunte Hines’ experience. She and her wife were both working at GDL Italian by Giada, a restaurant at the Horseshoe Casino, until it closed for good because of the pandemic.

“Now, even if I wanted to, I couldn't even return to a job,” Hines said.

Hines was one of a few dozen food service and hotel workers and activists who urged the governor to reverse the move at a union-organized rally in front of the Baltimore Convention Center Friday morning.

Since losing her job, Hines said she has gone back to school to study information technology. Meanwhile, she keeps looking for work at other restaurants.

“Even if I was to go get another job somewhere else, they're only giving part-time hours, and you're not able to work a lot to even make sure that you have payment enough for your rent or for schooling or maybe some people with childcare,” Hines said.

For now, she said, unemployment benefits help cover the rent in the West Baltimore home she shares with her wife and 16-year-old daughter.

“I've been asking relatives, family members and things like that, to help me out with the extra stretch,” Hines said. “But other than that, that's all I have to lean on.”

Come July 3, they will lose their benefits because they have already received them for the maximum 26 weeks.

Hines’ story was similar to those of others who spoke at the rally, such as Sakia Spriggs, a food service worker at Morgan State University.

Spriggs said she was first laid off on March 19, 2020. Then the school called her back in November, for the last three weeks before the Christmas break.

“And then I was laid off again because enough students didn’t return,” she said.

Spriggs, a single parent, said losing her unemployment benefits next month will force her to find a minimum-wage job to pay the bills until Morgan State’s fall semester begins in September.

“Families need this benefit,” she said. “We're trying to survive. We're not lazy. We want to work, but the jobs aren’t open.”

In addition to the 26-week cut-off, July 3 also marks the loss of an extra $300 in benefits and the return of a requirement that unemployment recipients prove they are actively searching for work.

Comptroller Peter Franchot, who also spoke at the rally, said this requirement is unrealistically burdensome while the state is still recovering from the pandemic.

“You need to show proof that you are attending job fairs. How many job fairs have you read about? None, because of COVID. You need to submit multiple job applications — this is every week,” he said. “This is for people, many of whom have no digital connectivity at all.”

Ending the pandemic-related benefits two months early is expected to cost the state $1.5 billion in revenue by early September, he said, as people spend less on necessities such as groceries.

“We're putting our hand into the pockets of the very vulnerable, the lowest wage earners, and we're taking $300 out per week of their money for the next 12 weeks,” he said. “Why are we turning down free money from the federal government, which has been specifically allocated to individuals that obviously do not have other resources right now?”

Franchot called on the Democratic leaders of the General Assembly to meet in a special legislative session to reverse Hogan’s decision.

Legislative leaders, meanwhile, are already considering the possibility.

In a letter to Hogan earlier this week, Senate President Bill Ferguson and Baltimore County Sen. Kathy Klausmeier, who leads the legislature’s Joint Committee on Unemployment Insurance Oversight, also urged Hogan to reconsider his decision.

“Should your Administration continue down this path without proper consideration for the negative impacts to Marylanders, our chamber will be forced to consider all other tools at our disposal to ensure our State’s prosperity,” they wrote.

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