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A Baltimore City Circuit Court judge is expected to rule Saturday morning whether to issue a temporary restraining order requiring Maryland to continue administering expanded federal unemployment benefits.
The judge’s ruling is expected the same day those benefits are due to expire at midnight, following a decision by Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) to suspend Maryland’s participation in the program.
The expanded benefits program, funded through a federal stimulus, was created by Congress to continue through early September. Hogan announced in June that he would suspend the program early, which he said was necessary to rejuvenate the state’s economy.
If courts do not intervene on Saturday, Maryland’s participation in two federal programs would end at midnight: benefits for those who have been unemployed for more than 26 weeks, and $300 payments to workers who haven’t historically qualified for benefits including independent contractors and gig workers.
Meghan K. Casey, an attorney for the plaintiffs in one of two cases challenging the governor’s decision, said about 85% of Marylanders currently receiving unemployment benefits fall into one of those two categories.
She argued that there is “zero harm” to the state if the expanded programs continue; the full $1.9 billion in estimated benefit payments comes directly from the federal government.
But harm if the program ends could be serious, she said.
“It’s difficult to overstate the severity of the harm that would be caused the plaintiffs here,” Casey said. “…Plaintiffs could become homeless. They risk not having food and utilities to supply their families.”
But Christopher Mellott, who is representing the Hogan administration, said the state is having to bear the administrative costs of maintaining an expanded unemployment program and that the governor balanced the need of state employees and employers during a time of historically high job openings in reaching his decision.
“It is an issue that is in the hands of the executive branch to try to figure out the best way to get the state back up and running,” Mellott said.
He said the program should be allowed to expire as planned after the governor’s action.
Judge Lawrence Fletcher-Hill said he expects to release a written opinion by 10 a.m. Saturday.
A political decision
Hogan ordinarily would have been represented in the case by the Maryland Office of the Attorney General, but Attorney General Brian Frosh was among a number of Democratic officials to publicly criticize the governor’s decision to end the program early.
Besides Hogan, 24 Republican governors and one Democrat also decided to end supplemental federal unemployment benefits in their states two months earlier than the Biden administration and Congress had intended.
During the hearing, Maryland’s Democratic candidates for governor took the unusual step of issuing coordinated statements opposing the governor’s decision in a press release sent out by the Metropolitan Baltimore Council of AFL-CIO Unions.
The candidates released the following statements:
“This is yet another example of the Hogan administration placing political interests over the people. Many families are still struggling to recover from the pandemic and need these lifesaving benefits that they are entitled to. Instead, we should be prioritizing fixing the unacceptably long wait times and red tape many Marylanders had to endure to receive their benefits in the first place. We can’t wait for the next crisis to fix the system.” — Former Prince George’s County Executive Rushern Baker
“Hogan’s decision will leave too many Marylanders in the lurch. Our next Governor needs to clean up the mess at the unemployment division: between the endless glitches and technical problems, cutting off pandemic benefits early, and other mismanagement, Hogan is failing to support Marylanders who are trying to get back on their feet.” — Jon Baron
“As I said while standing shoulder to shoulder with affected workers at Unite Here’s recent rally in Baltimore, and in my remarks at the Board of Public Works, prematurely cutting unemployment benefits is a policy that lacks compassion. I find it deeply troubling that we have gone down this path. Unemployment benefits have not only helped those who are struggling to pay their bills and feed their families, but have been economic multipliers that stimulate our local businesses by providing them with more customers who have more money to spend. The federal government promised this money, our workers have planned on this money, and to unilaterally deprive them of this money is deeply unjust.” — Comptroller Peter V.R. Franchot
“The decision to slash unemployment benefits for vulnerable Marylanders, while our state is still reeling from the economic consequences of a global pandemic, lacks both heart and basic common sense. Prematurely giving up federal dollars for those who lost their jobs through no fault of their own, jeopardizes the well-being of countless children and families and hurts local, independent businesses that stood to benefit from the reinvestment of those dollars into our state’s economy.” — Former Attorney General Doug Gansler
“Too many in Maryland are still struggling to get by. We must do better. But beyond the short-term fixes, we need to look at how we provide long-term and sustainable recovery for those who either have a job or need a job. That’s why I have proposed my Maryland Now Plan — a historic proposal that will eliminate the state income tax for the 95% of Marylanders who earn a personal income of less than $400,000 and create the nation’s very first Guaranteed Jobs Program for anyone in our state struggling to find work.” — Ashwani Jain
“Governor Hogan is showing he does not care about Marylanders struggling to recover from this pandemic. He has chosen instead to pander to his far-right base on the backs of Marylanders trying to support themselves and their families. It’s past time that we treat Marylanders experiencing hardship with the dignity they deserve.” — Former U.S. Education Secretary John King
“As we emerge from this pandemic, our most vulnerable Marylanders are going to lose unemployment benefits early due to a decision that was as cruel as it was unnecessary. Maryland deserves a Governor who will fight for every family in this state, not one who plays politics with people’s fates.” — Wes Moore
“It’s already unconscionable that Maryland workers have had to wait six months or more for unemployment benefits to come through. It is cruel and foolish to cut off an essential program that supports people who, through no fault of their own, have lost jobs and are struggling to pay the rent and put food on the table. Cutting people off from a critical safety net after a year of unemployment insurance failure is not a solution. Avoiding another debacle in unemployment insurance is about urgent reform and thoughtful implementation and execution. That is what I did during the Great Recession as Maryland Secretary of Labor and exactly what I’ll do as the next Governor of Maryland.” — Former U.S. and Maryland Labor Secretary Tom Perez
“We need to do more to ensure every Marylander has access to affordable child care and job training, and we need to work with community and faith leaders to ease vaccination concerns and eradicate COVID in every zip code. The argument that unemployed jobseekers are not getting back to work simply because of federal pandemic aid is a red herring that ignores what’s going on in everyday peoples’ lives. Maryland’s unemployment still remains nearly double pre-pandemic levels, which is why I am again calling on Governor Hogan to work with federal officials to reroute pandemic assistance toward job training and direct aid for unemployed and underemployed workers.” — Mike Rosenbaum