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Key hearing in Maryland unemployment lawsuits delayed until Monday

The fate of Maryland’s participation in more generous federal unemployment programs remains in limbo after a key hearing was postponed from Friday until Monday.

Lawyers for unemployed residents and for Gov. Larry Hogan will meet Monday in Baltimore Circuit Court to argue whether a preliminary injunction should be granted to prevent the governor from withdrawing Maryland from the programs while two lawsuits play out.

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Lawyers on both sides agreed to the postponement.

Meanwhile, dozens of Democratic state lawmakers wrote a letter Friday to the Republican governor, urging him to give up the legal fight and to replace his labor secretary. A spokesman for the governor dismissed the lawmakers’ request as a “political stunt.”

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The legal battle, which has been waged at a furious pace over the last couple of weeks, is over more generous unemployment programs that the federal government has offered as the economy continues to recover from the coronavirus pandemic shutdowns.

The enhanced unemployment benefits include an extra $300 per week to all recipients and expanded eligibility for the self-employed and those who have exhausted other benefits. The majority of Maryland residents on unemployment receive benefits through the programs.

Hogan is among more than two dozen Republican governors who have attempted to opt out early from the federal programs, which are scheduled to run through early September. Hogan announced his decision June 1, with the end of Maryland’s participation planned for the first full week of July.

That led to the lawsuits from unemployed Marylanders. They succeeded last weekend in securing a 10-day temporary restraining order requiring Hogan to keep Maryland in the programs, at least through Tuesday. Hogan’s lawyers lost multiple appeals of the order over the Fourth of July weekend.

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Hogan has said he believes that ending the programs is a crucial step to convincing people to get back to work. He’s echoed concerns from some business owners, who’ve said they’ve had trouble hiring and retaining employees.

But the unemployed and their supporters counter that some people still need the extra help because the economic recovery has been uneven. And they’ve questioned why the governor is spending state taxpayer dollars in an attempt to block residents from receiving federal assistance.

Several workers laid off in the pandemic described Friday how they have tried to get rehired during a virtual news conference with hospitality workers’ union UNITE HERE Local 7. The union and its members are among those suing the governor.

“I want my job back,” said Lupita Lopez, who worked at a hotel in Columbia. “I’m so ready to go back to work.”

“What we’re seeking with this lawsuit is that people just get their benefits through the federal program till Sept. 6, to give them some time to get recalled to work or to find another job,” said Roxie Herbekian, president of the union.

In their letter to the governor, Democrats in the state House of Delegates said that under Maryland Labor Secretary Tiffany Robinson’s leadership, the department “has been inexcusably slow in dispensing unemployment benefits.”

“Countless Marylanders have waited months for their benefits,” the lawmakers wrote. “Desperate and afraid, many of them spent day after day trying to reach the agency to resolve their claims.”

A spokesman for the governor dismissed the Democrats’ letter as “nonsense“ in a statement.

“The judge will soon hear the case on the merits for the first time, and they pull a political stunt like this,” wrote Hogan spokesman Mike Ricci. “It smacks of total desperation. What exactly is their plan to help small businesses and Mom-and-Pop stores struggling to find workers right now? They don’t have one. Just a bunch of nonsense.”

The Democratic lawmakers also urged the governor to stop fighting the lawsuits.

“We urge you to cease your expensive, failing legal defense to terminate enhanced federal unemployment benefits,” the lawmakers wrote.

They added: “Rather than adding to the taxpayer-funded law firm bills, we implore you to focus on solutions that will help both businesses and struggling workers as they transition back to the workforce.”

State Attorney General Brian Frosh hired the Venable law firm to represent the governor. Frosh, a Democrat, had spoken out against Hogan’s decision and said it would be a potential conflict of interest for his office to represent the governor in court.

Frosh’s office picked Venable from among three firms that applied for the contract, but the full terms of the deal have not been made public.

Del. Lorig Charkoudian said Hogan’s move to end the benefits came “after his unemployment system malfunctioned for an entire year and a half.”

Charkoudian, a Montgomery County Democrat who spoke at the news conference, noted that about 85% of people receiving unemployment in Maryland get it through the federal programs, so they would lose all their benefits if the payments are cut off.

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