Sandra Lynne hears from lots of Marylanders looking for help using the state’s unemployment system.
She hears their complaints, criticisms and worries through a Facebook page she created called Maryland Unemployment Coach.
Lately, the impending end of federal unemployment benefits has been a main topic of concern.
Until recently, Marylanders thought the federal supplements to regular unemployment, created as the economy crumbled early in the COVID-19 pandemic, would run out at the start of September.
“People were already stressing about the fact that we knew we were running out of money at the end of August,” said Lynne, who started her Facebook page to help Marylanders navigate the byzantine unemployment process she’s had to use several times over her career.
Now, she’s hearing from still-jobless residents who are worried about losing unemployment benefits even earlier: Gov. Larry Hogan announced last week that Maryland will join 24 other states in opting out of the remaining federal unemployment supplements on July 3.
That means no more $300 per week on top of Maryland’s regular unemployment benefits, which are capped at $430 per week. It also means no more help for self-employed workers who typically wouldn’t be eligible for unemployment, but who got help under pandemic emergency programs designed to help them stay afloat.
“It’s just cruel that he’s kind of arbitrarily cut this off,” Lynne said.
At a small protest in Annapolis on Wednesday, Jahmilla Fisher, 25, made posterboard signs and said she was afraid of what will happen if she loses her unemployment benefits.
“I have no idea what this is going to mean,” Fisher said. Her children are still learning remotely, she said, making child care a challenge.
“We have to figure out what that means,” she said as her kids ran around outside the State House.
Hogan’s announcement last week brought quick condemnation from Democratic lawmakers.
Marylanders “deserve greater predictability from Maryland’s post-COVID safety net than would result from the unexpected decision yesterday to cut Marylanders’ income and reject federal unemployment insurance funding allocated to our state,” Senate President Bill Ferguson said in a letter to Hogan.
Ferguson warned that if Hogan did not reverse the decision, “our chamber will be forced to consider all other tools at our disposal to ensure our state’s prosperity.”
It remains unclear what legal options are available to lawmakers. As of Thursday, Ferguson had not announced any further actions.
The House Economic Matters Committee met this week to hear from Hogan’s administration about the decision.
The Republican governor has framed the move as a way to get employees back into the workforce. He cited feedback from business owners who said they were struggling to reopen fully because of a lack of workers.
Keiffer Mitchell, Hogan’s chief legislative officer, emphasized that Hogan did not make the choice “in a vacuum,” though he offered few details about the decision-making process.
Mitchell said Hogan saw the state’s improving health metrics, including the increasing distribution of vaccines and falling positivity rate, as evidence that Maryland is emerging from the pandemic and ready to reopen more fully.
“Also, the governor has been traveling around the state,” Mitchell said. “He hears from numerous people, business owners, who are trying to reopen their businesses to full capacity and he’s heard countless times how it’s been difficult for them to hire their workers and get their businesses fully up and running.”
Republicans on the Economic Matters Committee said the decision was a response to the demand for workers in the market.
“That is the best and most direct way to get money to people, is to put them back on the payroll working,” said Del. Christopher Adams (R-Caroline, Dorchester, Talbot, & Wicomico counties). “It is not to use UI for something that it was never intended for.”
But economic observers say there are still many factors keeping people out of work, not just the extra $300 per week coming in from the federal government.
Daraius Irani, the chief economist for the Regional Economic Studies Institute at Towson University, said Maryland officials must weigh the ongoing need for benefits against employers’ claims that they are short of workers.
“There are probably a small minority of individuals who are saying, ‘Hey, great, I’m getting paid to stay home,’ and then there are the vast majority of individuals who are worried about health and safety, are reevaluating their career choices, are having trouble finding child care,” Irani said.
“For individuals who are facing the dilemma of child care, their kids can’t get vaccinated, the loss of $300 per week could be an economic hardship for them,” he said.
Maryland is also losing out on a large chunk of money by turning down the federal funds, he noted.
The Century Foundation, a nonpartisan progressive think tank, estimates that Maryland will lose $1.9 billion by opting out of the federal programs.
Kali Schumitz, a spokesperson for the Maryland Center on Economic Policy, said the loss of that money will hurt the state’s economy.
“That (money) would be going to people who are generally living on limited income and are likely to spend most or all of what they’re taking from unemployment in their local communities and at local businesses,” she said. “It’s hard to see any economic benefit from rejecting those federal funds.”
Lynne, who worked as a genealogy researcher, said she can’t get back to work yet because her job requires in-person access to archives that remain at least partially closed, for now.
She doesn’t know what she will do when her unemployment benefits run out. Because she was self-employed, she receives Pandemic Unemployment Assistance. That goes away entirely on July 3.
“I wish I had an answer for that,” she said when asked how she plans to get by.
“I don’t have an answer.”
Madeleine O’Neill covers the Maryland State House and state issues for the USA TODAY Network. She can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter at @maddioneill.