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Finally, an end to Maryland’s foolish fight over enhanced unemployment benefits | COMMENTARY

You can bet Democrats in the General Assembly are feeling pretty good about themselves today. Thanks to a few sentences in legislation they championed this past session, Gov. Larry Hogan’s effort to end enhanced federal unemployment benefits paid to out-of-work Marylanders got stopped in its tracks by two lawsuits. Baltimore City Circuit Judge Lawrence Fletcher-Hill’s ruling delivered Tuesday morning proved to be the coup de grâce. Siding with the plaintiffs, he issued a preliminary injunction that prevents Maryland’s labor secretary from taking action to deny expanded benefits to state residents. Add to that Governor Hogan’s decision not to challenge that outcome (a spokesman concedes the court case was sure to stretch out well beyond the Sept. 6 cutoff date for enhanced benefits nationwide) and the dispute is finally over. The stakes had already dwindled down to about nothing anyway.

The governor’s decision to back off from any appeal was grudging, of course. Clearly, Mr. Hogan still believes himself to be in the right, but with the ticking clock on federal benefits the stakes had gotten so small that the cost of litigation — the expense actually borne by Maryland taxpayers as opposed to the benefits doled out by the American Rescue Plan — loomed increasingly large. Given that the Hogan administration has been represented by Venable whose attorneys routinely make $500 an hour or more for civil litigation, it’s likely already a fairly big bill. Certainly much more than $300 which is, after all, the amount contained in the weekly checks at the center of the kerfuffle. We’d offer a more complete picture of the cost, but the administration redacted the specifics about compensation from the contract. Isn’t that curious?

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Alas, few pandemic-related debates have gravitated toward the Democratic-versus-Republican divide quite like the early discontinuation of enhanced unemployment benefits. Almost exclusively, Republican governors have imposed that cutoff, while their Democratic counterparts have chosen not to take such action. The argument for the early end is that the extra payments discourage workers from seeking jobs, particularly in the lower-paid service industry sector. The argument against is that the early cutoff imposes an unnecessary hardship on many facing continued issues from a lack of employment, problems with the state unemployment system or challenges related to child care, geography or vaccination.

We are skeptical that the adverse impact of enhanced benefits has been all that substantial, as if workers have grown fat and lazy just lolling around on their couches watching Netflix and eating candy. Certainly, there are companies that have faced challenges finding workers. There’s plenty evidence of that. But the problem is simply more complicated as workers switch to higher paying jobs or retire early or elect to work from home or follow any of the other permutations available to them.

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Just look at states that have discontinued benefits. They still have companies desperate for workers, too. In Arizona, the choice to discontinue enhanced benefits this month was accompanied by a $2,000 return-to-work bonus. Where is Maryland’s innovative attempt to help companies with hiring? Funding apprenticeship programs, expanding work visas to legal immigrants and removing other barriers to work (like inadequate public transportation, for example) — those are the ways government can support employers desperate for qualified applicants.

Now that the litigation is over, let’s take this out of the political realm and put it back in the practical by focusing how to assist employers fill jobs. Surely, one impactful step that too few have taken is to raise wages. Governor Hogan and other opinion leaders should shine a spotlight on those companies that have gone in that direction, such as Bank of America, now promising a minimum $25 an hour salary by the year 2025; or Chipotle, where it’s $15 now with starting salaries approaching $18 an hour in some locations (with referral bonuses, too). A governor can’t set salaries or bonuses in the private sector, of course, but he can sure speak out in favor of practical remedies and, in the process, maybe convince skeptical employers to do the right thing.

We’re not buying the suggestion that thousands of Maryland residents permanently lost the will to work either yesterday, today or between now and Sept. 6. That’s just a political talking point suited for talk radio and MAGA rallies. But what we do see is the hardship facing certain companies who must find skilled workers to fill jobs. With Maryland’s course on enhanced benefits is set, it’s time to focus on the essential problem of helping Maryland businesses meet the challenges of a post-pandemic economy and not on denying unemployed workers their due.

Baltimore Sun editorial writers offer opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. They operate separately from the newsroom.

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