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Court Order Extends Pandemic Unemployment Benefits

Shaunte Hines unemployment protest.jpg
Baltimore City resident Shaunte Hines speaks at a rally in June. Since losing her job at GDL Italian by Giada, a restaurant at the Horseshoe Casino, at the beginning of the pandemic, Hines said her family has relied on unemployment insurance to pay the bills. Credit: Rachel Baye / WYPR

Updated July 5, 2021 at 4:10 p.m.

Maryland’s top court has upheld a ruling extending pandemic-related unemployment benefits until July 13.

The order, issued Monday by Maryland Court of Appeals Chief Judge Mary Ellen Barbera, instructs the Court of Special Appeals to send the case back to the Baltimore City Circuit Court, where Judge Lawrence Fletcher-Hill plans to set a hearing in the coming days.

The ruling is the latest development in two class-action lawsuits that challenge Gov. Larry Hogan’s decision to end pandemic-related unemployment benefits before the federal funding paying for them is set to expire in early September. The benefits would have expired Saturday at 11:59 p.m., if not for a temporary restraining order Fletcher-Hill issued that morning that extended benefits until 10 a.m. on July 13.

The forthcoming hearing will allow Fletcher-Hill to decide whether to issue a preliminary injunction, which would further extend benefits.

At stake are benefits for people who would not otherwise qualify because they are self-employed or have already received unemployment insurance for 26 straight weeks. Unemployed workers would also lose an extra $300 dollars a week Congress authorized late last year.

During a last-minute hearing Friday afternoon held via Zoom, Meghan Casey, a partner at the firm Gallagher Evelius & Jones, which is representing the plaintiffs in one of the cases, said more than 300,000 Marylanders would be affected by the change.

“Mr. [Shad] Baban, for example, would be unable to purchase formula for his 9-month-old daughter if his benefits are cut,” Casey said, referring to the plaintiffs in the case. “Mr. A.M. will struggle to purchase life-saving medications for himself. Mr. D.M. will be unable to pay his rent at a sober-living house and risk falling back into addiction.”

Plaintiffs argued that Hogan’s move violates the intent of several state laws, such as one that says the state secretary of labor “shall cooperate with the United States Secretary of Labor to the fullest extent that this title allows.” Another law, passed earlier this year, says, “the Maryland Department of Labor shall identify all changes in federal regulations and guidance that would expand access to unemployment benefits or reduce bureaucratic hurdles to prompt approval of unemployment benefits.”

Fletcher-Hill wrote in his opinion that the plaintiffs need to establish that the laws mandate that Hogan and state Labor Secretary Tiffany Robinson “seek and obtain all federally funded benefits that are available to the State.”

As Casey said during the hearing, ending the benefits early forces the state to give up $1.9 billion in federal funding.

On the other hand, Chris Mellott, a partner at Venable, which is representing the Hogan administration, said the governor was fully within his right to end the benefits on July 3 under the terms of the contract with the U.S. Department of Labor.

“In making executive decisions, the governor is balancing the needs of the employees, the employers, and all aspects of citizens of this state,” he said during Friday’s hearing.

Mellott noted, as Hogan himself has many times, that businesses have reported challenges finding workers to hire.

However, Fletcher-Hill wrote in his opinion that while a labor shortage affects the state’s economy, cutting off the unemployment benefits would “also ripple throughout the economy.”

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