The Unemployed Workers Union is back in court battling the Maryland Department of Labor to settle unpaid unemployment benefits for a group of people who have lost their jobs during the coronavirus pandemic.
The union filed around 20 lawsuits in Baltimore City Circuit Court on Monday asking for the labor department to be reviewed for how it’s handling unpaid benefits. Plaintiffs are also seeking various remedies, including specifics about why they were denied benefits and in some cases looking for upward of $3,000 in unpaid benefits.
“People have called the Department of Labor hundreds of times and the only way they seem to respond is if we file a lawsuit,” attorney Alec Summerfield said. “People are so at the end of the rope they don’t know what else to do.”
This is not the first time the union, which is affiliated with the Baltimore activist group Peoples Power Assembly, has sued the labor department.
In November, the group filed a class action lawsuit against Labor Secretary Tiffany Robinson alleging failure to pay unemployment benefits. The suit was dismissed by a Baltimore Circuit Court judge.
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A Baltimore judge also dismissed a separate lawsuit in November from the group that had filed it in the summer, saying its claims were sitting in “purgatory.” The judge said the group can’t use courts to circumvent the claims and appeal process.
However, in July the group was a part of a lawsuit with other organizations that successfully helped block Gov. Larry Hogan’s attempt to end enhanced federal unemployment benefits early for tens of thousands of jobless Marylanders.
Summerfield said that despite several of the union’s lawsuits being dismissed, many people eventually received their owed benefits. He said that while he’d rather solve this directly with the labor department, he has dozens of other people lined up to file a similar lawsuit if it’s not resolved soon.
“These are good people and they deserve the benefits,” he said.
A spokesman for the state labor department said the agency has paid out close to $14.5 billion in unemployment benefits since the beginning of the pandemic in March 2020.
“Of the millions of claims received during this unprecedented time frame, over 99% of those that were nonfraudulent and properly completed have been processed,” spokesman Joseph Farren said. “We have nearly cleared our claims backlog and are now just dealing with the final batch of highly complex cases that require thorough review.”
Farren said the department has been inundated with fraudulent claims, with more than 1.8 million out of 2.3 million total claims being flagged. He said the department has seen more fake claims than “honest and deserving” ones. Last week, the Maryland legislature introduced legislation to double the penalties for unemployment insurance fraud, which Farren said has not been updated in more than 35 years.