Enhanced federal unemployment benefits in Md. will continue until at least August

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Protesters organized by the Unemployed Workers Union marched last week for the continuation of expanded federal unemployment benefits and faster processing of pending claims. (Courtesy Elizabeth Shwe/Maryland Matters)

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After over a week of fast-paced legal activity and a spate of court orders to block Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) from cutting off expanded federal unemployment benefits early, Maryland Secretary of Labor Tiffany P. Robinson disclosed that federal benefits will continue until at least August.

During a hearing in Baltimore Circuit Court on Monday, Robinson testified that she received an email from the U.S. Department of Labor on Friday, clarifying that states must give at least 30-days notice to opt out of federal programs.

This means that federal unemployment benefits will continue in Maryland for at least another month, even if Hogan wins lawsuits filed by unemployed Marylanders seeking to block his decision to end enhanced federal programs early.

Judge Lawrence Fletcher-Hill said that he would issue a ruling on whether to grant a longer-term preliminary injunction to extend federal programs by Tuesday at 10 a.m., before his temporary restraining order forcing Hogan to extend federal programs ends on that day.

At issue are the federal unemployment programs that maintain benefits for those who have been unemployed for more than 26 weeks and offer $300 payments to workers who, historically, have not been eligible for benefits — such as independent contractors, self-employed and gig workers.

Although these federal programs are slated to expire on Sept. 6, at least 25 states led by Republican governors are halting enhanced unemployment benefits early, blaming the federal programs for a shortage of workers.

Hogan sought to end Maryland’s participation in the federal programs on July 3, but two lawsuits filed by unemployed workers led Fletcher-Hill to issue, last weekend, a temporary restraining order which maintains the federal unemployed benefits until the end of the day Tuesday.

Once Robinson’s testimony disclosed that federal benefits would continue for another month, House Majority Eric Luedtke (D-Montgomery) implored Hogan, via Twitter, to end litigation over unemployment benefits.

“The entire program terminates in September nationally. Hogan is going to all this trouble just to try to cut people off from their benefits a few weeks early. He should drop the case, and stop trying to take benefits away from Marylanders who need them,” Luedtke tweeted.

Several other witnesses also testified during Monday’s hearing.

Asked what data was used to conclude that ending federal benefits early would encourage more out-of-work Marylanders to take jobs, Michael Siers, the Maryland Department of Commerce’s economist, told the court there were multiple factors.

“At this point, we know vaccines are safe and effective, we know that there are jobs available, and we know that at this point, remote schooling has concluded,” he said.

Siers said there were zero deaths among vaccinated individuals in June, and that he did not have data on how many unvaccinated people have been receiving benefits.

Although it is difficult to tell if there is a direct causal link, Siers said data suggest that ending federal benefits would lead to more people searching and applying for jobs.

Sam Epps, political director of UNITE HERE Local 25, said in a statement that he sees other forces at work.

“As ever, Governor Hogan is putting his political agenda first and Maryland workers last. He is polishing up his Republican bona fides, trying to make himself look like a tough guy by cutting vital benefits for laid-off workers — including many of our members. He should be ashamed,” Epps said.

Robinson said that the Department of Labor “reviewed countless documents and had countless phone calls … to make this very calculated policy decision” to end federal benefits early.

She added that the department found 46 fake websites posing as the Department of Labor in an attempt to steal identities of claimants and that 93% of claims which were flagged as fraudulent were confirmed as fraudulent.

But some unemployed Marylanders contend that their claims have been mistakenly labeled as fraudulent, which has delayed their payments.

Part of the lawsuit filed by the Unemployed Workers Union seeks an affirmation that workers have the right to unemployment benefits that have been withheld and to a speedy claims process so the payments are not delayed.

Typically, Attorney General Brian E. Frosh (D) would represent the governor in legal challenges, but he has pilloried Hogan for stopping unemployment benefits early. So the state is being represented by Venable LLP, a national law firm with headquarters in Washington, D.C.

Over the Independence Day weekend, Hogan appealed Fletcher-Hill’s temporary restraining order to the Maryland Court of Special Appeals, which rejected the governor’s argument. Then Hogan appealed to the state’s highest court, the Maryland Court of Appeals, before midnight on July 3 — the date he planned to stop participating in the federal programs — but Chief Judge Mary Ellen Barbera declined the Hogan administration’s request to hear the case.

Fletcher-Hill is expected to issue a written decision by 10 a.m. on Tuesday.

“There is public investment in this case. The plaintiffs believe this investment is so high because the economic anxiety of the community is so high,” said Alec Summerfield, the attorney representing the Unemployed Workers Union.

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