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Maryland lawmakers ask whether they can undo Gov. Hogan’s decision to cut off unemployment benefits

Maryland state lawmakers are investigating whether they can overturn Gov. Larry Hogan’s decision to opt out of federal programs that have aided the unemployed during the pandemic.

Leaders of the Maryland General Assembly asked their lawyers Wednesday whether they could pass a law or otherwise reverse the Republican governor’s move, which will leave tens of thousands of out-of-work residents with reduced unemployment benefits or none at all starting July 3.

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Hogan’s decision, announced Tuesday, will cut off $300 a week in extra payments. It also ends benefits for the self-employed, independent contractors and others in the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program. More than 150,000 people in Maryland are receiving PUA, according to the state labor department.

Under the American Rescue Plan passed by Congress in March, the programs were set to expire in early September. But Republican governors across the country have been opting out months early, citing reduced COVID-19 caseloads, reopening economies and business complaints about difficulty hiring workers.

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Hogan’s announcement sparked an outcry from people struggling to find good jobs. Business groups, meanwhile, welcomed the news, saying it’s been tough to fill positions.

It wasn’t immediately clear whether members of the Democrat-led General Assembly would have the authority to pass a law to reverse the governor’s decision, so they sent the question to the Office of the Attorney General.

For now, Senate President Bill Ferguson, a Baltimore Democrat, is urging the governor to rethink it, writing in a letter that nothing is final until July 3.

“Should your Administration continue down this path without proper consideration for the negative impacts to Marylanders, our chamber will be forced to consider all other tools at our disposal to ensure our State’s prosperity,” Ferguson wrote in a letter on Wednesday along with Sen. Kathy Klausmeier, a Baltimore County Democrat who co-chairs a General Assembly unemployment committee.

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Ferguson and Klausmeier encouraged the governor to follow the lead of Colorado, which is offering cash payments to people receiving unemployment who take jobs and stay in them for a certain amount of time. They wrote that withdrawing from the federal unemployment enhancements “is not our only choice.”

A spokesman for the governor said Hogan would review the letter.

The nine Democrats in the state’s Congressional delegation also urged Hogan to reconsider, saying in a statement Wednesday they are “already hearing from constituents whose family finances will be thrown into crisis by this action.”

In announcing the decision Tuesday, the governor cited “severe worker shortages” and said that with 70% of Maryland adults having at least one vaccination dose, it’s time to end the enhanced federal benefits.

Even with government-ordered COVID-19 restrictions lifted, some businesses are not operating at full capacity because they don’t have enough workers, said Mike O’Halloran, state director of the National Federation of Independent Business. That will send the economy backward, he said.

“That is something we cannot afford,” he said.

Groups advocating for workers pushed back at the idea that eliminating benefits will improve the economy.

Christopher Dews, a policy advocate with the Job Opportunities Task Force in Baltimore, said businesses should raise wages — as some companies have done — if they can’t attract workers. Cutting benefits, he said, will force people back into jobs “at criminally low wages.”

The task force works to eliminate employment barriers for low-wage workers. Efforts to protect workers, including during the pandemic, regularly encounter push back from business groups, Dews said.

“Now they are surprised that workers don’t want to come running back to those companies,” he said.

Ending the federal programs will hurt workers of color disproportionately, said Benjamin Orr, who heads the Maryland Center on Economic Policy, a progressive organization based in Baltimore. Census survey data shows they make up two-thirds of Marylanders receiving unemployment benefits.

Orr said the state still has a way to go before full economic recovery, with nearly 200,000 people looking for work.

At 6.2% in April, the state’s unemployment rate remains much higher than before the pandemic. It stood at 3.5% in 2019.

Hogan’s move “is very short-sighted and doesn’t reflect the reality that people are living all across the state,” Orr said.

The action comes as the state labor department still hasn’t fixed administrative issues that have delayed benefits during the pandemic, said Del. Lorig Charkoudian, who said there are still people who haven’t received PUA payments they applied for last summer.

The Montgomery County Democrat said ending the benefits is “cruel” and that Hogan is leaving federal money on the table.

“That money could be flowing through the Maryland economy,” Charkoudian said.

Lynndy Emanuelson of Hagerstown said it took her three months to find a decent job. She got hired for a government call-center position that she starts in July, but won’t get paid until the end of that month.

“The jobs that are easy to get pay minimum wage” and don’t offer full-time hours or benefits, said Emanuelson, a single mother of two elementary-age children. “You have to take something like two or three part-time jobs, which you can’t do with children.”

Emanuelson, 33, used to clean houses but quit when schools shut down last year. She needed to stay home with her kids and could not afford childcare.

The extra $300 a week helped her family get by. Without it, she would have received only $147 a week.

“I don’t want to be on unemployment,” Emanuelson said. “I made more when I worked ... I hate sitting in the house.”

Some also have health considerations.

Vanessa Pena of Parkville, who lost her job as a shift manager at McDonald’s when the public health crisis hit, said she still cannot return to in-person work, even now with vaccines available. She has several health conditions, including lupus, an autoimmune disorder.

”Everybody can’t go back to work yet,” Pena said. “And it’s not like I’m getting a ton of money; I was making more working.”

At a state Board of Public Works meeting Wednesday, state Treasurer Nancy Kopp, a Democrat, said she disagrees with the idea that removing the extra $300 weekly payments will incentivize people to go to work. Struggling families, especially single parents with children, actually will be hurt, she said.

“It’s only going to make them live in bigger misery,” she said.

Comptroller Peter Franchot, a Democrat who is running for governor, suggested that state lawmakers should step in.

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“I respectfully urge the leadership of the General Assembly to consider all options, including: Come back. Convene a special session to reverse the governor’s decision, because Marylanders frankly deserve better than this,” Franchot said.

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The meeting was chaired by Republican Lt. Gov. Boyd Rutherford in place of Hogan. After Kopp and Franchot spoke about unemployment, Rutherford said only: “Well said, but I agree with the governor on this.”

Baltimore Sun reporter Hallie Miller contributed to this article.

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