Andre Eldridge Jr. speaks at a June 4 union rally against Gov. Larry Hogan’s ending of an enhanced federal jobless benefit. (Robb Hill for The Washington Post)

BALTIMORE — Outside the Baltimore Convention Center, a small group of laid-off hotel workers chanted, "Keep the benefits going," and held signs asking, "Where is the work?" Across the street, a bold "WE'RE HIRING" sign was on display at a struggling restaurant.

The workers were protesting Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan’s decision to end an enhanced federal jobless benefit in early July, two months before President Biden and Congress intended. Hogan and many other Republican governors say the bigger unemployment checks are keeping people from filling vacant jobs, making it more difficult for the economy to rebound.

But many of the unemployed say that finding new work isn’t as simple as it sounds. They worry about child care and covid-19 risks and don’t want to abandon careers where they have seniority and experience to start over as new hires elsewhere.

Andre Eldridge Jr., 38, of Baltimore said that leaving his job of three years in event services at the Marriott Waterfront would mean walking away from a newly ratified union contract that included higher pay and additional benefits.

Right now, the work is sporadic. He has been called back for only one event. And even if he were offered a few more shifts in coming weeks, that change could disrupt his unemployment checks. Instead, he hopes soon to be called back full time.

“You hear all this dog-whistling that we’re being lazy,” he said after the rally. “And I take offense to that. These are union jobs. We want to work.”

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Jeffrey Barner, 61, has held two full-time jobs at the Hilton and Marriott in Baltimore for 16 years, with one shift starting at 7 a.m. and the second at 4 p.m.

He had hoped he would be back to at least one of his old jobs by September — when the federal program was meant to end — and was relying on the extra unemployment money to see him through.

Now he’s worried he will have to leave the hospitality industry altogether. He plans to attend job fairs and fill out job applications — a requirement for unemployment checks that was lifted during the shutdown but will be enforced again starting in early July.

“People talk about the taxes; well, these are our taxes, too,” Barner said of complaints that he and others are abusing the unemployment system. “We paid into the system.”

The situation is also frustrating for Stephen Nowicki, the general manager at the Pratt Street Ale House, who stood on the edge of the June 4 demonstration hoping to draw attention to the sign in his restaurant’s front window.

Underneath the “WE’RE HIRING” message is something that Nowicki said he has never seen his company offer before — a $400 signing bonus.

Nowicki says business has picked up since April, when the easing of capacity restrictions started. Patrons are slowly returning. Events are being booked. His problem, he said, is getting workers to come back.

A “core” group of employees returned when he called them. Others, he couldn’t locate. He could use at least 25 more people.

“The restaurant industry is a rotating door, but this has been crazy,” Nowicki said. “I’ve never seen anything like this.”

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A 'kick in the teeth'

In Maryland and more than two dozen other states, an estimated 4 million people will be affected by the early ending of a federally approved benefit. More than half are gig workers, who typically are not eligible to receive unemployment assistance but were given the allowance under changes made by Congress. In Maryland, those workers will lose the benefits entirely as a result of Hogan’s decision, and traditional workers receiving unemployment assistance will lose $300 a week for the next two months.

In Maryland, politicians who visited the rally outside the Baltimore Convention Center included Democratic gubernatorial candidates Peter Franchot, the state comptroller, and Wes Moore, an author and former executive at a nonprofit organization; Del. Brooke Lierman (D-Baltimore City), who is running for state comptroller; and state Sen. Cory McCray (D-Baltimore City).

U.S. Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) joined the other nine Democrats in Maryland’s congressional delegation in writing to Hogan on June 2, asking him to reverse his decision. State Senate President Bill Ferguson (D-Baltimore City) took the same action, and he and House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones (D-Baltimore County) are awaiting a decision by Attorney General Brian E. Frosh (D) on whether state lawmakers have any recourse.

Van Hollen said that Hogan’s decision to reinstate the work search requirement was “reasonable” but that eliminating benefits completely for gig and self-employed workers is a “kick in the teeth to families that are struggling to get back on their feet.”

Jina Hall, a mixologist at the Marriott in Baltimore and at two theaters in the city, said it was unfair that workers were given essentially a 30-day notice about the end of the enhanced benefit.

“This is going to be devastating,” she said. Hall said she watched her niece come down with covid-19 and develop asthma. Her neighbor spent four months in a hospital. “I don’t want any residuals from the virus,” she said.

Hall is hoping she will be called back to her old jobs. She said she has heard horror stories from people in her field who have taken other jobs and been treated poorly and given fewer hours than they expected.

Susan Burroughs, a medical office assistant in Annapolis, said she was homeless for part of the past year as she emerged from an abusive relationship. She said she doesn’t know how she can land a job when she hasn’t been able to find and afford child care for her 7-year-old daughter, who is too young to be vaccinated and has stayed in online school to minimize exposure to the coronavirus.

“This is like an explosion in my life because I was already dealing with 500 different things,” Burroughs said.

Kathryn A. Edwards, an economist at the Rand Corp. and a professor at the Pardee Rand Graduate School, said it is “hard to say” whether ending the enhanced benefit early makes sense. “We’ve never been in a pandemic this century, and we’ve never been in a labor market that is so constrained by people’s health concerns.”

But she said it is probably best to move with caution.

Prudent or cruel?

Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr., Hogan’s top legislative aide, told a panel of state lawmakers Tuesday that the governor “did not make this decision in a vacuum.” He said Hogan acted after the state significantly boosted its vaccination rates and lowered its covid-19 caseload, making it easier for people to edge back to normal activities.

But Democrats in Annapolis called the decision cruel and shortsighted, noting delays and problems with the state’s unemployment payments throughout the pandemic and saying the change will cause more anxiety for people who have been living on the edge for more than a year.

Marylanders are still calling about stalled unemployment benefits. And no one is answering the phone.

“We are fortunately moving in the right direction [with the pandemic], but it is nowhere close to where it needs to be,” said Del. Lorig Charkoudian (D-Montgomery).

She pushed legislation this year to repair the unemployment benefits system, which developed an apparently new set of problems this month that left many people inexplicably unable to submit weekly claims.

“People are still suffering,” Charkoudian said in an interview. “And now [Hogan] has voluntarily offered to leave money on the table that will lead to more suffering.”

According to a report by the Democratic-led Joint Economic Committee, Maryland families and local economies could lose a combined $1.4 billion because of the early cancellation of the federal benefit.

Republicans, however, say it was the most prudent step to take if the state and country want to move toward recovery.

“I’ve talked to tons of small-business owners who say, ‘We can’t hire anybody,’ and who say people are quitting because they can make more on unemployment,” said Senate Minority Leader Michael J. Hough (R-Frederick). “Economically we’ve made it an easy choice for people — stay home and make more money.”

Hough said it was laughable that some Democratic lawmakers reacted to Hogan’s decision with proposals to accelerate the state’s adoption of a $15-an-hour minimum wage.

“The economy is taking care of that,” he said, adding that some employers are paying even more to lure workers.

Back in Baltimore, Nowicki said the $400 bonus his company is offering hasn’t been much of a draw. He had brought on only about 10 new people, he said.

“It’s funny to see the people across the street asking for jobs and aid, when literally across the street we have the sign saying ‘hiring, all positions,’ ” he said. “Jobs are being offered. There’s no reason to be lazy, for the lack of a better word. The opportunities are there that weren’t there three, four months ago.”

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Coronavirus news in D.C., Virginia and Maryland

The latest: More than two years into the pandemic, covid cases in the D.C. region are rising again, , while liberal Montgomery County asks who deserves credit for its robust covid response. Meanwhile, Black funeral directors still face a daunting amount of deaths from covid and the omicron wave has had an unequal toll in the DMV.

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Omicron: Remaining covid restrictions in the D.C.-area, plus a breakdown of variant symptoms and mask recommendations.

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