A Baltimore judge will decide by Tuesday morning whether he should require Maryland to continue participating in enhanced benefits for people who are unemployed. It’s the latest step in a fast-moving legal challenge that has pitted unemployed residents against Gov. Larry Hogan.
Here’s what you need to know.
What’s everyone arguing over?
Part of the federal government’s response to the coronavirus pandemic includes enhancements to unemployment insurance to help people who are still struggling to find work.
Through early September, the federal government is paying for several programs that make more people eligible for unemployment payments and that pay them more money. They include:
- Pandemic Unemployment Compensation: Pays $300 more per week to unemployment recipients, on top of the regular payments of up to $430 per week in Maryland.
- Pandemic Unemployment Assistance: Makes the self-employed, gig workers, contract workers and others eligible for unemployment payments. Normally these type of workers do not qualify for unemployment benefits.
- Mixed Earners Unemployment Compensation: Pays an extra $100 weekly to some who are on regular unemployment who also previously had income from gig work or side work that wasn’t factored into the calculation of how much they receive.
- Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation: Extends eligibility for people who have exhausted their regular benefits. Before the pandemic, an individual could receive unemployment for only 26 weeks.
As of mid-June, about 178,000 people were receiving unemployment benefits in Maryland, and 85% of them were receiving them entirely through federal programs.
Hogan announced on June 1 that he intended to end Maryland’s participation in the programs starting the first full week of July, even though the federal government will pay for them through the week of Sept. 6.
Hogan is among more than two dozen Republican governors who have sought to end the programs early.
Where do things stand now?
Maryland is still participating in the federal unemployment programs — for now — after a judge issued a temporary order requiring Hogan and the state to keep participating.
Baltimore Circuit Judge Lawrence Fletcher-Hill issued the temporary restraining order on July 3, hours before the benefits were set to expire at midnight that night. The order says that for 10 days, the governor can’t take Maryland out of the programs.
Hogan’s lawyers tried and failed three times over the Independence Day holiday weekend to get a delay of the temporary restraining order. They were denied by Fletcher-Hill and the Maryland Court of Special Appeals on July 3, then by the Maryland Court of Appeals on July 5.
In his order, Fletcher-Hill said the people on unemployment were likely to suffer irreparable harm if the benefits were ended before the lawsuits are resolved. He also noted that they have a likelihood of success in their lawsuits.
What happened in Monday’s hearing?
Lawyers from both sides of the lawsuits — the governor’s side and the unemployed workers’ side — argued whether Fletcher-Hill should issue a preliminary injunction, which would continue to prevent the governor from withdrawing from the federal programs while the lawsuits play out.
Fletcher-Hill said he would issue a decision on the injunction by Tuesday at 10 a.m. A trial on the overall merits of the lawsuits hasn’t been scheduled.
Why does the governor want to stop these unemployment programs?
Hogan has said that the more generous unemployment programs should be cut off in order to force people back to work. He has echoed the statements of business owners who say they’re having trouble hiring and keeping staff.
“Thousands of businesses have no ability to get people back to work. We’ve got more jobs available than ever before in the history of the state. People that really need the help are still going to get unemployment benefits. It’s the extended bonus $300 that’s keeping people home,” Hogan previously told The Baltimore Sun.
Labor Secretary Tiffany Robinson noted in one of the legal documents that the enhanced programs are subject to an “unprecedented volume of fraudulent claims” that are time-consuming and have caused delays for legitimate claimants.
What’s the argument for keeping the unemployment programs?
The unemployed workers and their lawyers say that while the economy has been bouncing back from the pandemic downturn, it isn’t recovering equally for everyone. Parts of the hospitality industry, such as hotels, are not yet back to prepandemic levels of business.
Supporters also say the money given out in unemployment payments is immediately plowed back into the local economy, on things like rent, groceries and other necessities. That means the money has a multiplier effect, helping keep businesses open and workers on the job.
They further note that state law requires the state government to participate in federal unemployment programs.
State lawmakers recently strengthened that language. They passed a bill in April that requires the Department of Labor to identify all changes to federal programs “that would expand access to unemployment benefits” and also to revise all “rules and practices to encompass any changes in federal regulations and guidance.”
State Sen. Jim Rosapepe and Del. Lorig Charkoudian co-sponsored the law and said they made the change because they thought a situation like this might happen.
“We knew that [President Joe Biden’s administration] was going to be looking for ways to help unemployed working people and we wanted to make sure the Hogan administration didn’t leave workers high and dry,” said Rosapepe, a Democrat who represents Prince George’s and Anne Arundel counties.
Will the governor try to cut off benefits again?
Yes, but he will have to wait until at least mid-August.
The temporary restraining order required the Hogan administration to send a notice to the federal government saying that Maryland would continue participating in the unemployment programs.
The federal government requires 30 days’ notice to end participation in the programs. U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of Labor Suzi Levine sent an email to Robinson on Friday contending that, because Maryland extended the programs under court order, the Hogan administration would need to submit notice all over again before ending benefits.
Robinson, asked about the email while testifying Monday, said she had not yet responded to the U.S. Department of Labor but indicated that the Hogan administration would go along with the 30-day requirement should the governor win in court.
Who are all these lawyers?
The unemployed workers are represented by multiple lawyers including teams from the nonprofit Public Justice Center and the firm of Gallagher Evelius & Jones in Baltimore, as well as lawyers Alec Summerfield of Baltimore and Robbie Leonard of Leonard & McCliggott Law Group.
The workers also are backed by the Unemployed Workers Union, which is affiliated with Baltimore’s Peoples Power Assembly, and UNITE HERE Local 7, a union that represents hospitality workers.
The governor typically would be defended in court by the office of Attorney General Brian Frosh, a Democrat who has criticized Hogan’s decision to cut off benefits as “foolish.”
In this case, however, Hogan and Robinson are represented by private attorneys from the Venable law firm. It’s not known yet how much that legal representation is costing state taxpayers.
What about the work search requirement?
When he announced plans to end the federal programs in Maryland, Hogan also said that on July 4 the state would the resume the pre-pandemic rule that claimants must submit regular documentation to show they’re looking for work.
The state announced July 14 that the work search requirements also would be reinstated on July 18 for those receiving the federal benefits .
Baltimore Sun reporter Alison Knezevich contributed to this article.