Unemployed Workers Take Push for Unpaid Benefits to Court

Alec Summerfield, attorney representing the Unemployed Workers Union, filed an amended class action complaint to the Baltimore City Circuit Court, which claims that Secretary of Labor Tiffany P. Robinson violated the state law when she placed thousands of claimants under fraud investigation without confirming their identities in a timely manner. Photo by Elizabeth Shwe.

A week after a judge issued a ruling that maintains Maryland’s participation in enhanced federal unemployed benefits, the Unemployed Workers Union returned to Baltimore City Circuit Court on Wednesday to demand payments for the tens of thousands of unemployed Marylanders who have yet to receive their full benefits. 

Last week, Judge Lawrence Fletcher-Hill issued a preliminary injunction requiring the Hogan administration to continue offering federally funded expanded unemployment benefits through Sept. 6. Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) had intended to end federal programs on July 3, but that move was targeted by two lawsuits filed by unemployed workers, including the Unemployed Workers’ Union. 

Although this was a victory for unemployed workers, “it’s only half the battle,” Alec Summerfield, the attorney representing the Unemployed Workers Union, said in a news conference outside the Baltimore City Circuit Court on Wednesday. There are still a slew of claimants who have been denied their benefits and put on a “on hold” status under the suspicion of fraud, he said. 

“These [unemployed workers] are not liars and frauds. These are workers. These are good, honest people, and they deserve their money,” Summerfield said. 

On Wednesday afternoon, Summerfield filed an amended class action complaint in the Baltimore City Circuit Court, which claims that Maryland Secretary of Labor Tiffany P. Robinson violated the state law when she placed thousands of claimants under fraud investigation without confirming their identities in a timely manner, as well as placing thousands in “on hold” status for prolonged periods of time. 

Many are being investigated for fraud and some are charged thousands of dollars for overpayment “without explanation or hearing,” the lawsuit says. The class action complaint also includes 10 additional plaintiffs.

The Unemployed Workers Union is demanding that Robinson “process these claims, get people their money, give people speedy adjudication and just let them know what’s going on,” Summerfield said. 

A state law passed in the General Assembly this year requires that the Department of Labor provide status updates to claimants at least once every three weeks, as well as establish a process that allows claimants to track the status of their claim with an anticipated timeline for a resolution. The lawsuit asserts that Robinson failed to comply with this law. 

As of July 13, over a million claims have been flagged for fraud and 91.1% were confirmed as fraudulent, according to the Maryland Department of Labor. In addition, 20,797 in-state unemployment claims are still under review. 

“Since the beginning of the pandemic, the department has received over 2.7 million new unemployment insurance claims. The department has worked expeditiously through this unprecedented volume to process over 97% of legitimate claims and pay over $13 billion in benefits to those in need, while simultaneously identifying and blocking rampant fraud created by the federal programs,” Fallon E. Pearre, director of communications for the Department of Labor, said in a statement. 

“With over 1.4 million claims confirmed as being fraudulent after being flagged and investigated, it is imperative the department maintains security measures to protect taxpayers and the integrity of the system. We will continue to do everything we can within the confines of state and federal law to ensure that all claimants have been served,” Pearre continued. 

Summerfield estimates that up to 60,000 Marylanders have still not received their full benefits and more than $100 million of benefits that are owed in total. One of them is Stephen Ceci, 52, who worked as a bartender at the Westin Baltimore Washington Airport for six years before getting laid off last March due to the coronavirus pandemic. 

Ceci said he hasn’t received his unemployment benefits for the last seven weeks and was told that his claim is under fraud investigation, despite having received benefits regularly before. 

“I just don’t understand how they paid me for over six months and then all of a sudden, they stop and claim that they don’t know who I am? It makes no sense,” he said. Ceci said he sent his Social Security card and birth certificate to verify his identity a week and a half ago, but has not heard back from the state. 

Summerfield said he asked Fletcher-Hill for an expedited appearance in front of the court and hopes to schedule a trial within the next two weeks. 

[email protected]