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Judge orders Maryland to pay enhanced unemployment benefits; state appeals ruling

A Baltimore judge on Saturday ordered the state to continue paying enhanced federal unemployment benefits to tens of thousands of jobless Marylanders, a decision that Gov. Larry Hogan fought as a midnight deadline approached.

Baltimore Circuit Judge Lawrence Fletcher-Hill issued a temporary restraining order Saturday morning that requires the state to continue the unemployment programs, just hours before they were set to end under a decision by the Republican governor.

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The benefits include an extra $300 per week for all people receiving unemployment, as well as expanded eligibility for contract workers and those who’d exhausted their regular benefits.

The judge ordered that workers who were nervously watching whether their benefits would run out should still get them, for now. About 85% of people receiving unemployment in Maryland are part of the programs that Hogan is seeking to cut off.

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Hogan, who had ordered the end of the benefits a full two months before the federal money that funds them is to run out, vowed to “immediately appeal.”

The governor’s lawyers quickly asked for a delay in implementing the restraining order, which was immediately denied by Fletcher-Hill and then the Maryland Court of Special Appeals. The state filed an appeal a the Maryland Court of Appeals — the state’s highest court — late on Saturday.

As the clock ticked toward midnight, lawyers representing unemployed workers said in a statement late Saturday that they were “honored” to stand with unemployed Marylanders who were facing a cutoff of their vital unemployment benefits.

“We understand that the Governor has indicated that they will continue to fight this ruling, using taxpayer money to pay a private firm to do so,” said Sally Dworak-Fisher of the nonprofit Public Justice Center said in a statement. “We find it unfortunate that Governor Hogan wants so badly to continue to deny fully federally funded life-sustaining benefits to hundreds of thousands of Marylanders.”

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The temporary restraining order expires after 10 days, giving time to schedule a hearing on the merits of two lawsuits that seek to permanently overturn Hogan’s decision to end the unemployment benefits. It ensures that tens of thousands of unemployed workers will continue receiving the benefits.

The lawsuits were organized by the Public Justice Center and the Unemployed Workers Union. The first lawsuit was filed on June 24, and a second lawsuit was filed on June 30, leading to a frenzied pace of legal filings as the cutoff of benefits loomed.

As soon as the restraining order was issued Saturday morning, Hogan vowed to fight it, a fight that continued well into the night.

“We’re going to file an appeal today,” Hogan said as he prepared to march Saturday morning in the Independence Day parade in Annapolis, shortly after the restraining order was issued at 10 a.m.

Hogan said he had “no idea” how the judge ruled against the state’s position.

Fletcher-Hill wrote in a 14-page ruling that the unemployed workers met the criteria for the temporary restraining order, including that they would be “irreparably harmed” if the benefits ended and that they are likely to succeed on at least some parts of their lawsuits.

Specifically, the judge wrote that the plaintiffs may be able to prove that under state law, the state government is supposed to maximize the use of federal assistance programs.

“There is a significant public interest in continuing those benefits, perhaps even a predominant public interest,” he said.

The judge also found that if benefits were cut off while the lawsuits move forward, the plaintiffs would “face significant hardship.”

“The impact of the pandemic has been universal, but the brief stories of these Plaintiffs reminds the Court that the impact of the pandemic has been cruelly uneven,” Fletcher-Hill noted.

“As one who has enjoyed the privilege of continuous, secure employment, the court is particularly struck by the plight of those who have had to struggle with irregular or no employment,” the judge wrote.

Lawyers for the unemployed workers argued that Hogan and state Labor Secretary Tiffany Robinson violated their obligations under Maryland law and the state constitution. They said that ending the benefits early would cut a lifeline for families across the state struggling to find work.

The plaintiffs immediately celebrated the favorable — albeit temporary — ruling.

“There are thousands and thousands of unemployed Marylanders watching this case,” including more than 400 who tuned in Friday to a court hearing, said Roxie Herbekian of UNITE HERE Local 7 at a video news conference Saturday. “This is welcome news for all of them.”

The union represents workers in the hospitality industry, including some who signed on as plaintiffs in one of the lawsuits.

“We’re still not seeing all the businesses back, particularly in the hospitality industry and service industries,” Herbekian said. “And many self-employed workers have not seen their business come back.”

Kevin Baxter, who had worked at the Hilton Baltimore Inner Harbor Hotel, said the unemployment checks, including the extra $300 weekly, have been crucial to staying afloat and being able to drive to job interviews.

“I would lose my shelter, my apartment. I wouldn’t be able to pay the gas and electric, I wouldn’t be able to buy food or anything,” he said during the news conference.

Sally Dworak-Fisher, an attorney with the Public Justice Center, speaks Saturday about a judge's decision to order Gov. Larry Hogan to continue federal unemployment benefits for Maryland.
Sally Dworak-Fisher, an attorney with the Public Justice Center, speaks Saturday about a judge's decision to order Gov. Larry Hogan to continue federal unemployment benefits for Maryland.

Attorneys for the unemployed workers said they’d fight any appeal attempts from the governor. Dworak-Fisher said during the news conference that she hoped Hogan could be persuaded not to appeal, and urged people to call his office.

After mass layoffs and business shutdowns, the pandemic brought an unprecedented federal expansion of jobless benefits.

In Maryland, about 178,000 people were receiving jobless benefits as of June 19, according to the state labor department.

Most of them — more than 85% — were getting the aid solely through the federal pandemic programs, including eligibility for contract and gig workers who normally don’t qualify for unemployment, extended eligibility for people who had exhausted regular benefits and an additional $300 per week to all people receiving unemployment.

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Under the governor’s action to pull Maryland from the programs, some workers would have lost just the extra $300, while others would have lost their unemployment benefits entirely.

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Hogan is one of about two dozen Republican governors who moved to terminate the benefits earlier than September, when the federal government plans to end the programs. He said the economy is improving and pointed to business complaints of being unable to fill open positions.

Hogan maintained that his decision to end benefits was the right move to get people into jobs. Ending the benefits early, he said, is “absolutely critical to our economy.”

“Thousands of businesses have no ability to get people back to work. We’ve got more jobs available than ever before in the history of the state,” Hogan said. “People that really need the help are still going to get unemployment benefits. It’s the extended bonus $300 that’s keeping people home.”

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