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Don’t punish unemployed, offer work incentives | READER COMMENTARY

Matthew Livesay with a "Now Hiring" sign at Maryland Thermoform in Baltimore last year as the company tried to hire people as entry-level machine operators or warehouse workers, paying $12 to $15 an hour. (Andrew Mangum/The New York Times)
Matthew Livesay with a "Now Hiring" sign at Maryland Thermoform in Baltimore last year as the company tried to hire people as entry-level machine operators or warehouse workers, paying $12 to $15 an hour. (Andrew Mangum/The New York Times)

Gov. Larry Hogan recently announced he is terminating federal pandemic unemployment benefits, making him the latest of 25 governors to do so. He claims that federal aid has undermined economic recovery — that this financial lifeline has incentivized would-be workers to stay home and forego employment (”To save federal unemployment benefits, Maryland Dems should hold up governor’s pet projects,” June 7).

As the CEO of a Baltimore-based organization, I beg to differ. Scores of jobless Marylanders are eager to return to the workforce, yet obstacles remain, low wages certainly among them. This is just one reason why Mr. Hogan’s veto last year of a minimum-wage increase was shortsighted. But even with the legislature’s override, Maryland’s $15 hourly minimum wage will only go into effect in January 2025. For starters, state legislators should seriously consider accelerating its effective date.

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A living minimum wage aside, job seekers face other significant barriers: high-risk residents may feel returning to work could jeopardize their health, transit deficits remain an obstacle, and part-time roles offering no health insurance also contribute to worker hesitancy. And the challenges of securing adequate child care represent a major impediment to work. It is particularly troubling that the governor would choose to terminate these benefits just as schools let out for summer vacation, especially when affordable day care and summer camps are scarcer than ever. At the very least, letting federal benefits expire at the original September deadline as children return to school would have helped alleviate some of the hardship around child care.

Employers too should take steps to remain competitive. In Baltimore, the nonprofit organization I lead, Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, has hired 50 new employees in the past five months in functions ranging from human resources to finance. We have accomplished this by adapting to offer flexibility for parents struggling with child care or eldercare, teleworking options, a robust pandemic safety plan, expanded medical and mental health benefits, and pay even our interns no less than $16 per hour.

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Our economy and labor markets are complex, yet the governor’s simplistic modeling reduces Maryland’s workers to sly opportunists who answer to the highest bidder. Truthfully, we all make employment decisions that, in part, factor in wages — but we also consider what is best for our health, the well-being of our children, and what is feasible for our families.

We all wish to see a full and speedy economic recovery, but denying Marylanders federal cash is irresponsible and needlessly punitive. For the sake of our conscience and our economy, we need to implement real strategies that incentivize work, not punish people into poverty.

Krish O’Mara Vignarajah, Baltimore

The writer is president and CEO of Baltimore-based Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service and a former Maryland gubernatorial candidate.

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