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Maryland’s top court upholds emergency order keeping enhanced unemployment programs in place for now

Maryland’s highest court on Monday rebuffed Gov. Larry Hogan’s attempts to halt an emergency order that keeps the state enrolled in enhanced federal unemployment programs.

Chief Judge Mary Ellen Barbera of the Maryland Court of Appeals issued an order Monday dismissing the Hogan administration’s latest attempt to block the order. It was the third such ruling from different levels of the state court system in as many days against the governor’s team.

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As a result, unemployed Marylanders will continue to be able to receive the federally funded enhanced benefits, including an extra $300 per week to all unemployment recipients, expanded eligibility for gig and contract workers who do not normally qualify for benefits, and extended eligibility for those who’ve exhausted their regular benefits.

About 85% of the 178,000 Maryland residents receiving unemployment receive their payments through the federal programs.

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The high court’s order represented the latest victory for unemployed workers in a fast-paced series of legal filings and orders over the Independence Day holiday weekend.

“We are pleased that the Circuit Court’s order remains in effect and that Marylanders can continue to access federal unemployment insurance benefits,” said Sally Dworak-Fisher, an attorney with the nonprofit Public Justice Center, one of the groups representing out-of-work residents who sued the state.

”It’s time for the administration to do the right thing and let Marylanders know that for now the federal unemployment benefits will be continued in Maryland,” said Roxie Herbekian, president of UNITE HERE Local 7, a union for hospitality workers whose members are among the plaintiffs.

Mike Ricci, a spokesperson for the governor, said in a statement: “There are record numbers of jobs available, and this program is making it harder to fill them, and hurting our restaurants and small businesses. The White House and the U.S. Secretary of Labor agree that governors can take this action, and most already have. We are confident the courts will ultimately rule in favor of our fight to get more Marylanders back to work and continue a booming economic recovery.”

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The enhanced unemployment programs are part of the federal government’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, which threw record numbers of people out of work due to shutdowns and an upended economy.

The programs are scheduled to run out in early September, but Hogan was among about two dozen Republican governors who opted to end the benefits early. He announced June 1 that the state would opt out of the programs starting the first full week of July.

That led to a pair of lawsuits from unemployed workers who sought to block the end of the programs. Those lawsuits prompted the frenzied legal maneuvers as the scheduled end of the benefits just before midnight on Saturday approached.

The governor has argued that stripping away the benefits will nudge people back into the workforce and help businesses that are struggling to hire workers. He said Saturday that ending the benefits is “absolutely critical” for continuing the economic recovery from the pandemic.

Unemployed workers have countered that many industries still have not rebounded and they continue to need help. A key part of their legal argument focuses on state law, which requires the state to participate in federal unemployment assistance programs.

The two lawsuits filed by out-of-work Marylanders now move back to Baltimore Circuit Court.

The judge overseeing the case, Judge Lawrence Fletcher-Hill, issued a 10-day temporary restraining order Saturday morning that required the governor to stay in the federal programs.

Fletcher-Hill found that the plaintiffs would be irreparably harmed if Maryland dropped out of the federal programs and that there is a likelihood that their lawsuit may be successful.

The legal drama is expected to continue: Fletcher-Hill’s order also said both sides must confer with him as early as Tuesday to schedule a hearing on a preliminary injunction that the unemployed workers have requested.

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