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Court Extends Maryland Unemployment Benefits To September

Sally Dworak-Fisher, a lawyer with the Public Justice Center who represents the plaintiffs in one of the lawsuits, speaks at a press conference celebrating Tuesday's ruling. Credit: Rachel Baye/WYPR
Sally Dworak-Fisher, a lawyer with the Public Justice Center who represents the plaintiffs in one of the lawsuits, speaks at a press conference celebrating Tuesday's ruling. Credit: Rachel Baye/WYPR

Unemployed workers in Maryland got a major win Tuesday when Baltimore City Circuit Court Judge Lawrence Fletcher-Hill ordered Gov. Larry Hogan to extend pandemic unemployment benefits.

The ruling is the result of two class-action lawsuits filed by unemployed workers challenging Hogan’s decision to end benefits July 3, more than two months before the federal funding paying for those benefits expires on Sept. 6. An earlier court order extended benefits until July 13, to allow enough time for a full hearing.

Lawyers for the plaintiffs in the case argued that, by ending benefits before the federal program required it, Hogan and state Labor Secretary Tiffany Robinson were violating the intent of multiple state laws, including one that requires the state labor secretary to “cooperate with the United States Secretary of Labor to the fullest extent” allowed under law. Another law, passed earlier this year, requires the state Department of Labor to “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.”

In his opinion released Tuesday, Fletcher-Hill analyzed these laws and concluded that they require Robinson to “maximize” the benefits available to unemployed residents.

The judge also disputed the argument, raised frequently by Hogan, that the expanded unemployment benefits are deterring workers from filling available jobs.

“At most, Defendants’ evidence suggested that no more than about 20% of unemployed workers surveyed identified the amount of unemployment benefits as a strong factor in causing them not to seek new employment urgently,” Fletcher-Hill wrote.

The reality, he wrote, is more complicated than the Hogan administration and its lawyers suggest.

On the other hand, unemployment benefits boost the economy, he wrote.

“If the disincentive of unemployment benefits is real for some relatively small segment of the workforce, the cutoff of benefits would be real and immediate for almost all currently unemployed Marylanders,” Fletcher-Hill wrote. “Not all of those workers will instantly move into new jobs, meaning uneven economic struggles at the individual level and an immediate loss of economic stimulus at the generalized level.”

As a result, he wrote, a preliminary injunction that allows benefits to continue while the court cases proceed would be in the public interest.

Plaintiffs and advocates for unemployed workers celebrated the ruling.

“We are ecstatic that we have received excellent news in this truly David-and-Goliath fight that unemployed workers have won,” said Roxie Herbekian, president of Unite Here Local 7, a union that represents hospitality workers, including four of the plaintiffs in one of the two cases.

Kevin Baxter, a plaintiff and a member of Unite Here Local 7, said during a press conference Tuesday afternoon that he has been laid off from his job in the cafeteria at the Hilton Hotel attached to the Baltimore Convention Center since March 2020.

While he’s waiting for the call that it’s time to return to his job at the hotel, he has been hunting for work. He said he’s applied at several area hospitals, including some affiliated with Johns Hopkins University and the University of Maryland, as well as Mercy Medical Center. He has applied at other non-medical companies, too.

“It's a lot of competition out there,” he said. “I have gone to interviews, and then I guess there's so many candidates that I didn't qualify for the job, or maybe I was over-experienced.”

He said there are not enough opportunities in Baltimore City, where he lives. Because he does not have a car, his options are further limited.

“The jobs are usually in the counties somewhere out far where you need to have a car, and public transportation doesn't go those far places,” Baxter said. “I applied for Kohl’s all the way out in Harford County, but there is no bus for me to get out there to work at Kohl's.”

Alex Dame, who is on furlough from her job at the same Hilton Hotel, said she managed to find part-time work to cushion her loss of income. However, her unemployment benefits are vital until she gets called back to her job or finds other full-time work.

“It's my lifeline to keeping a roof over my head. It's a lifeline to putting food on the table, paying my bills,” Dame said. “I mean, bills, do not take a vacation. They don't care. The bills keep coming, and they keep knocking on your door.”

She said she has been “desperately looking” for any full-time job that will take her.

In response to Tuesday’s decision, the Hogan administration plans to drop its fight against the two lawsuits.

“We fundamentally disagree with today’s decision. This lawsuit is hurting our small businesses, jeopardizing our economic recovery, and will cause significant job loss,” spokesman Mike Ricci wrote in a statement. “While we firmly believe the law is on our side, actual adjudication of the case would extend beyond the end of the federal programs, foregoing the possibility of pursuing the matter further.”

Ricci added that there are “more jobs available than ever before.” He pointed to the Maryland Workforce Exchange, which he said has more than 250,000 available job listings statewide.

Rachel Baye is a senior reporter and editor in WYPR's newsroom. @RachelBaye
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