Extend help to jobless

The Baltimore Sun

Although at a 15-year high, Maryland's December unemployment rate of 5.8 percent remains well below the national average, and considering the severity of the recession, the biggest surprise is how favorable the state's jobless numbers looked until just four months ago.

But the Free State is no more immune to national economic trends than any other. Recently announced layoffs suggest things are going to get worse. And other statistics, including tax revenue, have set record drops.

Somewhat lost in this reporting, however, is another trend: Cash-strapped employers are forcing workers to go from full-time to part-time employment . Such underemployment has been rising markedly since at least late 2007. What happens when part-time workers lose their jobs? Under current state law, they are ineligible for unemployment benefits even though their employers are required to pay into the state's unemployment trust fund on their behalf.

That needs to change - and quickly, given the economic trends. Gov. Martin O'Malley has submitted legislation to extend unemployment benefits to those who worked at least 15 hours per week. The bill ought to be approved on an expedited basis so that the money can go in people's pockets as soon as possible.

Critics point out that the new benefit would cost the state's unemployment trust fund about $16 million per year and increase the chances of higher unemployment insurance rates. Employers are already dealing with higher premiums this year thanks to job losses. But the new benefit would do no such thing - if the General Assembly makes two additional changes in the law. First, people receiving substantial severance pay shouldn't be able to simultaneously receive unemployment benefits. And second, the state needs to crack down on employers who misclassify their workers to avoid paying unemployment and other benefits. If lawmakers approve these reforms, the net effect of extending unemployment benefits to part-time workers should be zero. And since the state's unemployment trust fund is amply funded (it tops $700 million), it's a risk-free move.

Maryland should join the majority of states that now allow part-timers to collect unemployment. This represents yet another way to inject some life into the economy - and provide a modest boost for families dealing with difficult times.

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