Tens of thousands of unemployed Marylanders are set to lose some or all of their jobless benefits soon.
While regular state unemployment insurance will continue, the vast majority of those receiving benefits now get them entirely through federal pandemic programs that Gov. Larry Hogan plans to end July 3.
About eight out of 10 Maryland claimants received all of their benefits through such programs as of June 12, the latest data provided by the state labor department.
When millions lost work suddenly as the coronavirus pandemic swept the nation, the federal government responded with an unprecedented expansion of jobless benefits, not only boosting weekly checks but also covering the long-term unemployed and a range of people who previously couldn’t qualify for unemployment insurance.
They include the self-employed, such as Brenton Smith of Baltimore, a screen printer and designer. He made most of his money selling shirts and other clothing at festivals, all canceled last year. Most of those events have not returned in 2021. Smith also printed clothing for local schools but lost that business when they went virtual.
“Without the festivals, I can’t make enough money any other way,” said Smith, 48.
The job openings he finds are low-paying, part-time and without benefits — things like fast food and warehouse work.
“That’s all that’s really there,” Smith said. So he is “looking for the best of the worst now.”
Hogan joined other Republican state leaders around the country in ending the enhanced federal benefits, which Congress had extended until September. They include a $300 weekly supplement — which goes to every claimant — and programs for the self-employed and people who have exhausted regular benefits. Regular unemployment in Maryland lasts up to 26 weeks.
The last week Marylanders will be able to file claims for the federal programs is for the week ending July 3.
Of the 204,448 people receiving benefits in the state June 12, about 44,000 were on regular state unemployment, according to the state labor department’s figures.
Some 121,000 were on Pandemic Unemployment Assistance for the self-employed, independent contractors and others. And about 39,000 received Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation, which provides extra weeks of aid for people who have exhausted regular benefits.
“While these federal programs provided important temporary relief, vaccines and jobs are now in good supply,” Hogan said when he announced June 1 he would halt the programs in Maryland.
Hogan’s move sparked rallies and drew criticism from Democratic lawmakers and local leaders. On Thursday, a group of unemployed residents filed a lawsuit in Baltimore Circuit Court challenging the governor’s decision.
The governor’s administration continues to defend the decision, which has won praise from business groups and Republican lawmakers.
“The enhanced benefits were for the very worst of the pandemic,” said state House of Delegates Minority Whip Christopher Adams, an Eastern Shore Republican. “We’re through that.”
Adams said the state needs “to encourage people to go into the labor market if they’re able,” adding that many employers are offering bonuses and other incentives to entice applicants.
At a meeting this week of the General Assembly’s Joint Committee on Unemployment Insurance Oversight, the head of the National Federation of Independent Business in Maryland said employers are having trouble finding workers even in salaried positions.
“I have numerous members, anecdotally speaking, that will reach out to me and say, ‘Look, we have salaried positions that start at $65,000 a year” and cover training expenses, said the NFIB’s state director, Mike O’Halloran. “And they just can’t find qualified help.”
Recent research has suggested that the current enhanced federal benefits have not had a large impact on whether people are motivated to take jobs.
A paper by economic researchers at the Federal Reserve of San Francisco, for instance, found that the extra $300 a week has likely had “small but noticeable effects on job search and worker availability in early 2021.” The researchers estimated that if seven out of 28 unemployed people received job offers, only one would decline due to the extra $300.
Another University of Chicago study found expanded unemployment benefits during the pandemic had little effect on whether people looked for jobs.
Some Maryland jobseekers say the openings that are available pay very little or don’t match their work histories and skills.
“I can’t survive on minimum wage,” said Laurie Haarer, 63, of Frederick County.
A college graduate, she spent her career in the mortgage industry and most recently worked as an insurance agent.
“I have never worked in a restaurant,” Haarer said. “I think it’s unrealistic to expect people who have had a career ... to go to work in a restaurant making minimum wage just because there’s a job available.”
She has been applying to jobs in the mortgage and insurance industries, as well as office manager and administrative assistant positions, but hasn’t gotten any response.
Haarer left two insurance agencies last year because the offices were not following COVID-19 protocols such as wearing masks, she said. Because she was classified as an independent contractor at the first job, she qualified for the federal program for the self-employed, called Pandemic Unemployment Assistance.
“I want to live a normal life just like I did before all this happened,” she said. “I wasn’t looking for any handouts.”
Donna Zeigfinger of Montgomery County said she has faced challenges including ageism in searching for a job during the pandemic.
Zeigfinger, 64, owns a travel agency and business dried up during the pandemic. She looked for jobs throughout last year, but found that many paid $15 an hour or less and required a college degree, which she doesn’t have.
The only businesses that showed interest were multi-level marketing companies, she said.
Like other Marylanders, Zeigfinger faced long delays in receiving benefits — at one point going four months without payments. She has done pet-sitting part-time, but the work is erratic. Demand for travel is picking up, but she typically doesn’t get commissions until people take their trips.
The federal benefits have been a lifeline as she tries to pay her bills and keep her business alive, said Zeigfinger, a volunteer with the Unemployed Action campaign of the Center for Popular Democracy.
Unemployment insurance “is what saved me,” she said.
The pandemic was the first time that unemployment benefits covered self-employed people and gig workers.
The self-employed were especially hard hit in the pandemic, said Keith Hall, president and CEO of the National Association for the Self-Employed, which focuses on the needs of businesses with 10 or fewer employees.
“The self-employed typically have fewer resources to fall back on than big companies do,” Hall said.
For small businesses, the pandemic has accelerated the shift toward technology, he said. So some businesses that have maintained a strong online presence and embrace digital tools to deliver services have thrived, while others have struggled to recover, he said. The pandemic also forced some people to become self-employed because they were laid off.
The federal programs don’t just cover the self-employed.
People who quit due to COVID-19 or were primary caretakers to children forced to stay home from school also could be covered. And another program for “mixed earners” gives $100-per-week supplements people who made money from both payroll jobs and self-employment.
With this significant expansion, “what we’ve done in this recession is very different” than in the past, said Heidi Shierholz, a former chief economist for Obama administration’s labor department and now director of policy at the Economic Policy Institute, a progressive think tank.
Now, “even though the labor market is improving, there’s still a long way to go,” she said.
Shierholz said cutting benefits will disproportionately harm Black and Latino workers, who have higher rates of unemployment.
She said there is “no economy-wide labor shortage.” While there is some evidence of a shortage in leisure and hospitality, it is “isolated” and has not extended to other sectors, she said.
“The very, very low-wage jobs are the ones where there are lots of openings now,” Shierholz said.
Maryland’s unemployment rate was 6.1% in May, the latest figures available. That is down from its peak of 9% the previous April, but higher than before the pandemic — the state’s overall jobless rate was 3.5% in 2019.
Maryland Policy & Politics
Katlyn Sharp, 29, who used to live in Anne Arundel County, said she feels people making policy don’t understand what the jobless are going through.
She’s been receiving benefits through the federal program providing extra weeks of unemployment while looking for jobs without success.
“These people that are making the decisions about our lives — they’ve got plenty of money in their back pockets,” Sharp said. “They don’t know what it’s like to choose between a light bill and putting food on the table.”
She and her husband both worked in the restaurant industry, she as a manager and he as a bartender. After losing their jobs as the pandemic hit, they sold everything, down to their bed, and drove to California to move in with her brother. She has received her jobless benefits from Maryland, where she last worked.
Her husband eventually got a job with a moving company, but Sharp has not yet found one. At one point, she tried being an Instacart shopper but barely made $10 a day.
It isn’t her choice to not work, she said.
“We didn’t ask for this,” she said