Maryland Gov. Harry Hughes and members of the General Assembly's leadership were told by state employment and training officials today that about 9,500 jobless Marylanders will lose their unemployment benefits before the end of September because the state's unemployment rate is dropping.
The unemployed workers affected are those currently receiving benefits under the state's additional benefits program. That program, which was enacted by the legislature a year ago during a special session, extends benefits to those who have already exhausted their 26 weeks of state benefits and eight weeks of federal benefits.
"These are people who have had a really tough time finding work," Hughes said. "This is really good news and bad news. The good news is that our unemployment rate is dropping steadily. The bad news is that because of that we have 9,500 people facing a cutoff in benefits."
Hughes said he expected some members of the legislature to call for a special session to try to find a quick remedy for the problem but said he was against that idea. "The kinds of things you would have to do would have major ramifications," he said.
"Do you change the formula that cuts off the program? Do you extend the regular period beyond 26 weeks? Those aren't the kinds of questions you answer in a day or two."
Senate President Melvin A. Steinberg, who was present at the one-hour briefing in the governor's office, agreed with Hughes. "There are serious philosophical questions involved here," he said. "If we held a special session and didn't reach a solution that would be even worse, because then you've raised people's hopes for nothing."
The so-called "trigger-off" of the benefits program is a complicated formula. Put simply, the state's unemployment level has dropped from 7.8 percent a year ago to 6.2 percent. That drop will mean that on Sept. 3, the "trigger-off" will occur--and will have to remain off for 13 weeks, under the law. Three weeks later, on Sept. 24, the additional benefits will cease.
Hughes received this news today from Brent Johnson, secretary of the new Department of Employment and Training, just 24 hours after learning that Fairchild Industries is closing its Hagerstown plant and expects to lay off 1,000 workers by the end of the year. Those newly unemployed will not be affected by the cutoff of the additional benefits program.
The maximum benefit an unemployed Marylander may receive is currently $161 a week. The additional benefits program was passed after a cutback in federal funds to the state. It extended from 34 to 47 the number of weeks an unemployed worker in Maryland would receive help. Since then, slightly more than 26,000 people have received more than $21 million in additional benefits from the state. The average stay on the unemployment list is 15 weeks in Maryland.
None of the leaders had any suggestions on how to handle the benefits cutoff. Maryland will begin receiving additional federal funds in October as part of the Job Partnership Training Act, a program designed to retrain displaced workers, but whether that program could help no one knew.