A group of unemployed Maryland workers whose lawsuit helped derail Gov. Larry Hogan’s attempt to end expanded federal unemployment benefits early are asking a judge now to address tens of thousands of claims that have languished in “purgatory” after being halted over paperwork issues.
The Unemployed Workers’ Union, a group affiliated with the Baltimore activist group Peoples Power Assembly, filed an amended lawsuit Wednesday against the state and Maryland Labor Secretary Tiffany Robinson reiterating its contention that scores of out-of-work Marylanders are being denied the benefits they’re entitled to after being falsely flagged for fraud or other issues.
Many claimants had their benefits stopped, denied or flagged for fraud “without explanation or hearing” or “were placed in an ‘on-hold’ status for months at a time or indefinitely,” the lawsuit claims. Others were billed by the state for thousands of dollars in alleged overpayments “without explanation or hearing.”
Wednesday’s class-action lawsuit is part of another legal challenge to the Hogan administration’s handling of unemployment claims that led Baltimore Circuit Court Judge Lawrence Fletcher-Hill to order the state to keep paying expanded federal benefits through the beginning of September, when the federal programs are set to lapse.
Hogan had sought to cut off those federal benefits — which add an additional $300 per week to state claims and also extend unemployment insurance benefits to out-of-work freelancers, gig workers and those who have exhausted their eligibility — at the beginning of July. But Fletcher-Hill issued a pair of rulings, including a preliminary injunction last week, that blocked Hogan from doing so.
Hogan, a Republican, contended that the expanded benefits are hurting Maryland’s economy by making it harder to businesses to hire workers, a claim others contest.
Sharon Black, an activist and organizer with the Unemployed Workers Union, called those rulings “a tremendous victory” in a press conference Wednesday outside Baltimore’s Elijah E. Cummings Courthouse but said their fight against the state won’t be over “until every Marylander who’s unemployed gets the benefits they deserve.”
Robinson and other Hogan administration officials have argued that Maryland’s unemployment insurance claims system has been beset with fraud during the pandemic, something that’s bogged down those tasked with reviewing the record-breaking volume of claims.
Fallon Pearre, a spokesperson for the Maryland Department of Labor, called it “imperative the department maintains security measures to protect taxpayers and the integrity of the system” in response to questions about the updated lawsuit on Wednesday.
Pearre wrote that more than 1.4 million unemployment insurance claims — out of 2.7 million new claims filed in Maryland since the beginning of the pandemic — have been “confirmed as being fraudulent after being flagged and investigated.”
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“The department has worked expeditiously through this unprecedented volume to process over 97% of legitimate claims and pay over $13 billion in benefits to those in need, while simultaneously identifying and blocking rampant fraud created by the federal programs,” said Pearre.
But Alec Summerfield, a Baltimore attorney who’s representing the workers, said scores of those flagged for fraud are hard-working people who lost their jobs during the pandemic and have seen their benefits stopped. Their legitimate claims, Summerfield said Wednesday, are languishing as they struggle to get anyone from the state labor department to review their cases despite repeatedly sending in documents to prove their identity.
“These are not liars and frauds,” Summerfield said. “These are workers. These are good, honest people and they deserve their money.”
Stephen Ceci, a Waverly man who’s been out of work since losing his job as a hotel banquet hall bartender at the beginning of the pandemic, said he’s among them. Ceci said his claim was flagged as fraudulent — and his benefits cut off — nearly two months ago after he forgot to sign his replacement Social Security card before uploading it while reapplying for benefits.
Ceci, who protested with the Unemployed Workers Union outside the courthouse Wednesday, said he’s spent seven weeks trying to correct the mistake and sending in other records — including his birth certificate — to prove his legitimacy but still hasn’t received a clear response from the state.
Summerfield said they’re demanding the Maryland Department of Labor “process these claims, get people their money, get people speedy adjudication and just let them know what’s going on.”
Summerfield said he’s asking Fletcher-Hill to hold a trial on their allegations in the next two weeks. The attorney cited both the desperate circumstances of some people who have spent months without income while trying to claim benefits and the potential complications with obtaining backdated benefits after the expanded federal programs end in early September.