Maryland federal unemployment benefits to continue, for now, judge rules; Gov. Hogan to appeal

·5 min read

BALTIMORE — Maryland must continue paying enhanced federal benefits to tens of thousands of jobless residents, after a Baltimore judge ruled Saturday in favor of the unemployed.

Baltimore Circuit Court Judge Lawrence Fletcher-Hill issued a temporary restraining order on Saturday, just hours before the federally funded benefits were set to expire at midnight. The benefits include an extra $300 per week for all people receiving unemployment, as well as expanded eligibility for contract workers and those who’d exhausted their regular benefits.

The ruling means that workers who were nervously watching whether their benefits would run out will still get them for now. About 85% of people receiving unemployment in Maryland are part of the programs that were going to be cut off.

Gov. Larry Hogan, who had ordered the end of the benefits a full two months before the federal money runs out, vowed to “immediately appeal.”

The Republican governor’s lawyers quickly asked for a delay in implementing the restraining order, which was immediately denied by the judge Saturday afternoon. The Hogan administration then filed a motion to the Court of Special Appeals asking for a delay, which was pending Saturday evening, according to Hogan spokesman Mike Ricci.

The temporary restraining order expires after 10 days, while both sides schedule a hearing on the merits of two lawsuits that seek to permanently overturn Hogan’s decision to end the unemployment benefits. The order ensures that tens of thousands of unemployed workers will continue receiving the benefits, which are paid for by the federal government.

“We’re going to file an appeal today,” Hogan said as he prepared to march in the Independence Day parade in Annapolis on Saturday morning, shortly after the restraining order was issued.

Hogan said he had “no idea” how the judge ruled against his position.

Fletcher-Hill wrote in a 14-page ruling that the unemployed workers met the burdens for the temporary restraining order, including that they would be “irreparably harmed” if the benefits were ended and that they are likely to succeed on at least some parts of their lawsuits.

Specifically, the judge wrote that the plaintiffs may be able to prove that the state government is supposed to maximize the use of federal assistance programs under state law.

The judge also found that if benefits were ended while the lawsuits move forward, the plaintiffs will “face significant hardship.” Fletcher-Hill noted that the impacts of the pandemic have been “cruelly uneven” with some suffering more with illness and joblessness than others.

“As one who has enjoyed the privilege of continuous, secure employment, the Court is particularly struck by the plight of those who have had to struggle with irregular or no employment,” the judge wrote.

Lawyers for the unemployed workers had argued that Hogan and state Labor Secretary Tiffany Robinson violated their obligations under Maryland law and the state constitution. They said that ending the benefits early would cut a lifeline for families across the state struggling to find work.

The plaintiffs immediately celebrated the favorable — albeit temporary — ruling.

“There are thousands and thousands of unemployed Marylanders watching this case,” including more than 400 who tuned into a court hearing on Friday, said Roxie Herbekian of UNITE HERE Local 7 at a video news conference Saturday. “This is welcome news for all of them.”

The union represents workers in the hospitality industry, including some who signed on as plaintiffs in one of the lawsuits.

“We’re still not seeing all the businesses back, particularly in the hospitality industry and service industries,” Herbekian said. “And many self-employed workers have not seen their business come back.”

Kevin Baxter, who had worked at the Hilton Baltimore Inner Harbor Hotel, said the unemployment checks, including the extra $300 weekly, have been crucial to staying afloat and being able to drive to job interviews.

“I would lose my shelter, my apartment. I wouldn’t be able to pay the gas and electric, I wouldn’t be able to buy food or anything,” he said during the conference.

Attorneys for the unemployed workers said they’d fight any appeal attempts from the governor. Sally Dworak-Fisher, an attorney with the nonprofit Public Justice Center, said during the news conference that she hoped Hogan could be persuaded not to appeal, and urged people to call his office.

After mass layoffs and business shutdowns, the pandemic brought an unprecedented federal expansion of jobless benefits.

In Maryland, about 178,000 people were receiving jobless benefits as of June 19, according to the state labor department.

Most of them — more than 85% — were getting the aid solely through the federal pandemic programs, including eligibility for contract and gig workers who normally don’t qualify for unemployment, extended eligibility for people who had exhausted regular benefits and an additional $300 per week to all people receiving unemployment.

Under the governor’s action, some workers would have lost just the extra $300, while others would have lost their unemployment benefits entirely.

Hogan is one of about two dozen Republican governors who have moved to terminate the benefits earlier than September, which is when the federal plans to end the programs. He said the economy is improving and pointed to business complaints of being unable to fill open positions.

Hogan maintained that his decision to end benefits was the right move to get people into jobs. Ending the benefits early, he said, is “absolutely critical to our economy.”

“Thousands of businesses have no ability to get people back to work. We’ve got more jobs available than ever before in the history of the state,” Hogan said. “People that really need the help are still going to get unemployment benefits. It’s the extended bonus $300 that’s keeping people home.”

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