Unemployed workers in Maryland are going to court to try to stop the state from cutting off federal aid to the jobless.
The Unemployed Workers Union, an advocacy group organized by the People’s Power Assembly to help people obtain benefits, announced a lawsuit Thursday challenging Republican Gov. Larry Hogan’s decision to end several pandemic unemployment programs early. The class-action lawsuit in Baltimore Circuit Court also seeks benefits for people whose cases have been pending in the state’s claims system.
The lawsuit questions whether Hogan has the authority to end the federal benefits and says the labor department has failed to fulfill legal obligations to unemployment claimants. It names Hogan and Maryland Department of Labor Secretary Tiffany Robinson as defendants.
The plaintiffs are six Maryland residents who have filed for unemployment.
They want a judge to issue an injunction to stop Hogan from ending the federal benefits. They also want the court to declare that the unemployment claimants have a right to withheld benefits, speedy adjudication of claims and adequate communication from the state labor department.
Many claimants have been disqualified from benefits “without explanation or hearing” or “were placed in an ‘on-hold’ status for months at a time or indefinitely,” the lawsuit claims.
People have had their cars repossessed and can’t feed their children while waiting for benefits, said attorney Alec Summerfield, who is representing the workers.
“The stories we have heard from people who have not received a dime — a dime — over the past year are beyond harrowing,” Summerfield said at a press conference in Baltimore before heading into the courthouse to file the lawsuit. “People who worked for decades now cannot afford to put food on the table. This is a disgrace.”
Summerfield said he’s seeking a hearing on the motion for an injunction by early next week.
Hogan announced this month that on July 3, Maryland would stop participating in the federal programs. They include programs that provide $300 extra weekly payments, cover gig workers and the self-employed, and provide extra weeks of benefits.
The move to cut that aid adds “insult to injury” when many in Maryland still are waiting for benefits, said Sharon Black, a representative of the Unemployed Workers Union.
About two dozen other Republican-led states also decided to end participation in the federal unemployment programs, which Congress had authorized until September.
Democratic leaders in the Maryland General Assembly said after Hogan’s decision that they were investigating whether they could stop the governor from ending the benefits, but they have not yet taken action to reverse his move.
Hogan cited increasing vaccination rates, job growth and complaints from businesses that they are facing worker shortages in announcing the move.
Asked for comment about the lawsuit, Hogan spokesman Mike Ricci said in a statement Thursday that economic conditions “warrant opting out” of the federal programs, citing growth in jobs and wages.
Ricci also pointed to comments from President Joe Biden’s administration.
White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said during a briefing earlier this month that governors have “every right” to “pull back” on the benefits early, though the Biden administration believes states should stay in because the programs are helpful to out-of-work Americans.
A spokeswoman for Maryland’s labor department did not respond to a request for comment about the lawsuit.
Ricci said the state “continues to successfully process more than 97% of claims even while facing an onslaught of fraudulent claims each week.”
The labor department has been emphasizing fraud in the system recently, issuing a press release Monday saying that it has detected more than 508,000 “potentially fraudulent claims” since the beginning of May.
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At a briefing Wednesday, some members of the General Assembly’s Joint Committee on Unemployment Insurance Oversight questioned state labor officials about the allegations of fraud.
Del. C.T. Wilson, a Charles County Democrat, said he is hearing from many people whose unemployment accounts are being flagged and then can’t get benefits — or answers to their questions — for weeks or months.
In an affidavit accompanying the lawsuit filed Thursday, one of the plaintiffs, Leonard Harp of Baltimore, described how his account was flagged after he was laid off from his job hanging drywall. In September, the state approved his application for benefits.
But when Harp logged on to the state’s online claims portal, called BEACON, he “was informed that my identity could not be confirmed, and thus my application was suspected of fraud.” He uploaded numerous official documents to confirm his identity, but still was denied, he said.
“Each week, my wife and I request review of my applications and each week we are told that a review is underway,” Harp said in the affidavit. “This has been going on since September. I have confirmed my identity in every way I know how.”
Maryland is not the only state to face a lawsuit over the federal employment benefits. Indiana Legal Services sued Republican Gov. Eric Holcomb this month over his decision to end the benefits there. The case has not yet been decided.
Baltimore Sun reporter Pamela Wood contributed to this article.