A Baltimore City Circuit Court judge has scheduled a Friday afternoon hearing on a motion to stop Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) from halting expanded federal unemployment benefits early in Maryland.
The hearing comes after a spate of legal maneuvers over the Independence Day weekend. On Saturday, Judge Lawrence Fletcher-Hill issued a temporary restraining order to halt Hogan’s suspension of those unemployment benefits for 10 days.
Hogan is facing two lawsuits filed by unemployed Marylanders over his decision. Attorneys with the Public Justice Center and the Unemployed Workers Union each filed suit seeking a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction to continue federal unemployment benefits through early September.
The expanded benefits program was created by Congress and funded by a federal stimulus through Sept. But Hogan announced in June that Maryland would end the program two months early because state employers were having trouble finding people to hire.
The Hogan administration made multiple attempts to challenge the temporary restraining order, but judges at the Court of Special Appeals and Court of Appeals ruled in favor of unemployed workers each time. The judges’ actions continued the expanded federal unemployment benefits, which were set to expire at midnight on July 3, until the restraining order expires on July 13.
The benefits are paid to persons who have been unemployed for more than 26 weeks, and they include $300 payments to workers who, historically, have not been eligible to receive benefits — such as independent contractors and gig workers.
On Monday, Court of Appeals Chief Judge Mary Ellen Barbera issued an order declining the Hogan administration’s request to hear the case. And on Tuesday, Barbera rejected the Hogan administration’s motion to reconsider that decision.
If granted, a preliminary injunction would extend the temporary restraining order until the lawsuit is resolved entirely, said Alec Summerfield, a Baltimore-based lawyer who is representing the Unemployed Workers Union. The legal process likely will continue until September, Summerfield said.
Similar lawsuits have been filed in Indiana, Texas and Ohio. An Indiana judge recently ruled that the state has to keep paying the federal benefits.
Also on Tuesday, Maryland Comptroller Peter V.R. Franchot (D) sent a letter to Hogan, urging him to reconsider his decision to end benefits early. Franchot wrote that he was disappointed with a letter the Hogan administration sent to the U.S. Department of Labor, stating that they intend to end Maryland’s participation in unemployment the extended federal benefits on July 14, the day after the temporary restraining order expires.
“Deconstructing this economic bridge, which costs the State of Maryland nothing to maintain, will have significant consequences not only for unemployed or underemployed Marylanders, but also for our state’s economic well-being,” Franchot wrote. He estimated that ending unemployment programs early would reduce statewide economic activity by more than $1.1 billion during the next two months.
Franchot urged Hogan to reconsider other solutions, such as Colorado’s JumpStart program, to address temporary labor shortages while continuing expanded federal unemployment programs.
And Tuesday afternoon, unemployed workers rallied to call for for resolution of 3,000 grievances filed by unemployed workers in Maryland who have not received their benefits.
Gathered in front of the Maryland Department of Labor building in downtown Baltimore in 95-degree weather, dozens of members of the Unemployed Workers Union — an advocacy group organized by the People’s Power Assembly — held signs that read “unemployment benefits are a right.”
Sharon Black of the Unemployed Workers Union, Summerfield and the Rev. Annie Chambers walked into Secretary of Labor Tiffany Robinson’s office to deliver a letter asking for an emergency meeting “to resolve the over 3,000 grievances of unemployed Marylanders who have yet to receive their benefits.”
Around 70% of the 3,000 have not received any benefits or received only a small portion since last March, according to Summerfield.
The union also brought copies of 700 grievances to give to Robinson as a “sample” of the thousands of grievances that they have received. “These are almost too heavy to carry in,” Black said.
“The class action suit is very important to us, and we hope that the courts do the right thing, but we have always been prepared that we know that our fight has to continue regardless of what takes place inside or outside the courts,” Black said. “That means that we will not rest until every single unemployed Marylander gets their benefits.”
Shortly after the three entered the building, around 20 union members marched in a circle, holding signs in front of the Department of Labor building.
One of the union’s demands was to open offices so that Marylanders whose claims have been deemed fraudulent could show their identification papers in person. According to the Department of Labor’s website as of Tuesday, the department is offering limited in-person services by appointment only.
Union members were told that Robinson was not in the office, so they gave the letter and stack of grievances to an officer in the building instead, Black said.
“That’s a disgrace and a slap in the face — that we couldn’t even get in there to deliver petitions as taxpayer citizens,” Chambers said.
Leroy Overton, 53, was one of the unemployed workers who came to the protest with his fiancée. He said he lost his job in courier service nine months ago, but stopped receiving unemployment benefits in May.
Overton said his claim was labeled as fraudulent and that he sent his identification documents around four months ago, but still has not received benefits.
“They couldn’t give me an explanation,” he said. “I’ve been calling for ten weeks, and they keep saying the same thing — that they’re going to investigate fraud.”
Since then, Overton has had to give up his apartment and move in with his fiancée. “I’m about to lose everything,” he said.
In their class action lawsuit, the Unemployed Workers Union not only tries to reverse Hogan’s decision to cut federal programs early, but also seeks an affirmation of their rights to withheld unemployment benefits and a speedy claims process for people whose cases have been pending.
Once there is a more permanent ruling on the preliminary injunction, the plaintiffs will be pushing the judge for a hearing on that part of the lawsuit, Summerfield said.
“As we go forward, I think more and more focus will shift to that part of the struggle,” he said.