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Unemployment Insurance Changes Won't Force Applicants Into 'Bad Jobs,' Officials Say

Shaunte Hines unemployment protest.jpg
Baltimore City resident Shaunte Hines speaks at a rally earlier this month. After losing her job at GDL Italian by Giada, a restaurant at the Horseshoe Casino, at the beginning of the pandemic, Hines said she went back to school to study information technology. Credit: Rachel Baye / WYPR

Several changes to the state’s unemployment insurance program take effect July 3. Among them, Marylanders collecting unemployment benefits must prove that they are actively looking for work.

However, state Department of Labor officials said Wednesday that no one will be disqualified for turning down an unsuitable job. The comments came in response to concerns raised during a meeting of the state legislature’s Joint Committee on Unemployment Insurance Oversight.

“I really am getting the sense that there are some in the state that want to use UI policies as forcing workers to take very bad jobs,” said Donna Edwards, president of the Maryland State and District of Columbia AFL-CIO and a member of the committee.

As evidence, she highlighted Gov. Larry Hogan’s reinstatement of the work search requirement in response to complaints from businesses that they are struggling to find workers.

During the pandemic, many people who lost their jobs went back to school or received additional training, so that they now are over qualified for the jobs they had before, Edwards said. Others began caring for family members and now need jobs with predictable schedules.

“I kind of feel like UI is being looked at as a hammer to force people into work that is under their skills or what they don’t want,” she said.

However, Dayne Freeman, assistant secretary for unemployment insurance at the state Department of Labor, said benefits recipients are only required to accept an offer for a “suitable” job — a term with a specific, regulatory definition.

“No one’s required to, if you’re an astrophysicist, to flip burgers,” Freeman said. “If you refuse that job, that’s not going to prevent you from collecting unemployment benefits.”

On the other hand, Mike O’Halloran, Maryland state director of the National Federation of Independent Business and another committee member, said no one is trying to use the threat of the loss of unemployment benefits to force people into low-paying jobs.

“I have numerous members, anecdotally speaking, that reach out to me and say, ‘Look, we have salary positions that start at $65,000 a year. We offer them. We pay for the training for these folks to get up to par with the rest of our technicians,’ and they just can't find the qualified help,” he said.

State Del. C.T. Wilson, a Democrat who represents part of Charles County, said the burden should be on businesses to appeal to new hires.

At his and his wife’s businesses, they offer incentives, such as good health care, teleworking opportunities and predictable schedules, to attract workers, he said.

“There is a clear avenue of people trying to say, ‘Well, if we cut off unemployment benefits, they got to come back to work,' versus motivating people to come back to work by however you want to design your business because I know I designed mine for that specific reason,” Wilson said.

He urged the Department of Labor to make sure the work search requirement is designed to enable residents to find long-term employment, not short-term jobs.

Labor Secretary Tiffany Robinson said the work search requirement is set up “so that we can ensure that our claimants are finding, not just employment, but meaningful employment.”

Other changes to the state’s unemployment insurance program that take effect July 3 include the end of an extra $300 in weekly benefits — paid for using federal funds — as well as the loss of benefits for anyone receiving them for more than 26 weeks.

Rachel Baye is a reporter for WYPR's newsroom.