About 150 unemployed workers converged on the Maryland General Assembly today to make an emotional and at times tearful appeal for passage of a bill that would provide financial, legal and medical assistance to thousands of laid-off workers whose unemployment benefits have run out.
The workers' demonstration and testimony before the Senate Economic Affairs Committee in favor of the so-called "unemployed bill of rights" coincided with new state-wide unemployment figures that show an increase in the state's jobless rate to 9.1 percent in January from 8.4 percent last December.
Although the measure is unlikely to pass the legislature in its current form, the workers' message was received with sympathy and underscored a single theme: that those who have lost their jobs and who do not qualify for welfare and food stamps, are losing their houses, cars and families as well.
"We're talking about decent citizens who have worked hard and are proud of their homes," said Edith Dunne, who was laid off from Bethlehem Steel Corp. "We're talking about the survival of American life."
Sponsored by Sen. Julian L. Lapides (D-Baltimore), the bill would protect unemployed workers from utility cutoffs during the winter months and allow a 12-month delay on mortgage payments and a six-month delay on evictions. It would provide laid-off workers with free legal services, medical care and food, as well as job training programs. If enacted, the bill's provisions would go into effect whenever the state's unemployment reaches 7.2 percent.
Although Maryland's legislators, as well as Gov. Harry Hughes, traditionally have supported unemployment relief measures--including extending unemployment insurance benefits last year and attempting now to increase by $7 the maximum weekly benefits paid--the prospects for this bill are not bright.
Some senators said today that it is too broad and potentially too costly. The state's Department of Fiscal Services placed initial costs at more than $5 million. Utility company representatives and lobbyists for real estate and landlord groups testified against it, saying their clients could not afford to allow late rent checks, utility and mortgage payments.
Ira C. Cooke of the Property Owners' Association, which represents about 100,000 housing units in Baltimore, said landlords would be forced to break housing codes and allow their properties to deteriorate if the measure is approved.
Despite these criticisms and a degree of skepticism on the part of some committee members, Lapides said he expects the Senate to pass some portion of the bill, most likely the provision allowing a moratorium on mortgage payments. Maryland would become the first state with such a law, although similar legislation is being considered in Minnesota.
"This bill is really nothing to be frightened about," Lapides told committee members. "It is not a forgiveness of debts owed , but merely a temporary postponement." He said later that he thought the bill would pass because "we have done nothing for the unemployed this year except for a lot of lip service." The mortgage moratorium would be the most palatable to most legislators, Lapides said, because most of them believe that "when you take someone's house away it's like taking their guts away."
The state would issue identification cards to those who meet eligibility requirements. Those participating in the program would be subject to a $1,000 fine or a year in jail if they violated any provisions of the bill.