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Laid-off Baltimore hospitality workers protest Gov. Hogan’s ending federal jobless benefits

Laid-off hospitality workers rallied Friday in Baltimore to protest Gov. Larry Hogan’s decision to end federal unemployment benefits early, saying jobs have not returned after the coronavirus pandemic pummeled their industry.

Gathered downtown, members of Unite Here Local 7 and their supporters called on the Republican governor to reverse course.

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“Do the right thing!” the crowd chanted in front of the city’s convention center, which hasn’t hosted events for more than a year.

Nearby hotels have suffered without the return of business at the convention center.

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Andre Eldridge Jr., an event services worker at the Baltimore Marriott Waterfront in Harbor East, lost work in Mach 2020. He was not called back until the past month — and that was only for a day.

Andre Eldridge, an event staff worker at the Marriott, speaks at a rally to bring attention to workers who are asking for unemployment benefits to be extended.
Andre Eldridge, an event staff worker at the Marriott, speaks at a rally to bring attention to workers who are asking for unemployment benefits to be extended. (Barbara Haddock Taylor)

“What are we to do?” said Eldridge, 38. “Right now, the work is just not guaranteed.”

Hogan, a Republican, announced Tuesday that Maryland would stop participating July 3 in federal programs that have provided enhanced jobless benefits during the pandemic. The governor said job openings are growing and businesses are facing a severe shortage of workers.

Eldridge said the notion that people don’t want to work because they’re receiving benefits is “very disrespectful.” He said he was notified the next time he can come back to work is not until July 17.

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Hogan’s decision will stop $300 in extra weekly payments to claimants and end the state’s participation in programs including one for the self-employed and gig workers and another that aids people who have exhausted regular unemployment benefits.

Congress authorized the programs to remain in place until early September under the American Rescue Plan passed in March.

More than 250,000 people are currently receiving the extra $300 payments through the Maryland Department of Labor, according to the agency.

Workers at the rally said people rely on those benefits to feed their families and pay bills. Those being called back to their jobs are getting few hours, they said.

Sakia Spriggs was laid off in March 2020 from her job working for Morgan State University’s food service contractor.

She said was recalled this past November for three weeks. But then she was laid off again because not enough students returned, she said.

“Families need this benefit. We’re trying to survive,” said Spriggs, adding that she is a single parent. “We’re not lazy. We want to work, but ... the jobs aren’t open.”

Del. Brooke Lierman said women have been affected disproportionately by the economic crisis caused by the pandemic. Cuts to benefits will hurt children and mothers, she said, adding that even before the pandemic, it was difficult for many families to find child care in the summer.

“The timing of this decision is especially awful,” the Baltimore Democrat said.

The crowd also heard from City Councilman Kristerfer Burnett, state Comptroller Peter Franchot, and state Sen. Cory McCray, all Democrats.

Speakers said Hogan’s action will hurt the city especially.

“Where do you think the unemployment is concentrated?” McCray said. “These are our neighborhoods.”

Leaders of the Maryland General Assembly criticized Hogan’s action this week. They continue to consult with their attorneys to determine whether passing a law to overturn it would be legally viable.

Hogan spokesman Mike Ricci told The Baltimore Sun that the governor is not reconsidering his decision. He pointed to the federal jobs report Friday showing notable gains in leisure and hospitality and said workers in this sector “have more opportunities available to them than just about any industry.”

Asked about concerns that workers don’t have child care, Ricci said that 92% of the state’s providers are open and operating.

For more than a year, the Baltimore Convention Center has not hosted any meetings but has been repurposed for the pandemic, designated as a field hospital, COVID-19 testing facility and now a mass vaccination site. Officials have said the state will start winding down those operations this summer.

Unite Here Local 7 President Roxie Herbekian listed the names of several downtown hotels that once employed hundreds of people each. Now they only have a few dozen people each, she said.

“Where are the jobs?” she said.

Although demand for leisure travel is picking up, business travel remains slow and the large events that drive Baltimore’s hotel business downtown aren’t happening yet.

The convention center is providing space in July for the convention of Destinations International, an association of tourism boards and convention and visitors bureaus, said Peggy Daidakis, the center’s executive director. And officials expect to see more bookings this fall, as people get more comfortable with traveling and large gatherings.

“It’s going to take a transitional time,” she said.

Baltimore Sun reporter Pamela Wood contributed to this article.

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