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Maryland lawmakers not doing enough to help working families this General Assembly session | COMMENTARY

By: Lisa Brown , John Nethercut, and Gustavo Torres
For: The Baltimore Sun |MAR 30, 2021 at 10:56 AM

With little time remaining in the Maryland General Assembly session, it’s useful — and discouraging — to look back at the working families policy agenda that nearly 50 organizations, representing hundreds of thousands of Marylanders, proposed at the beginning of the pandemic to help essential workers and those most affected by the shutdown.

At the time, we called for a special legislative session to address Marylanders’ urgent needs related to housing, worker protections, health care and much more. Nearly one year later, our elected leaders have made some progress, but too many of these needs remain unmet and too many Marylanders are still struggling.Advertisement

The pandemic has laid bare long-standing structural inequities and revealed that our laws often fail to protect and support workers and families. It has expanded the already-large income gap: While middle- and upper-income Marylanders are surviving or even thriving, lower-income families are suffering. And its effects have fallen hardest on Black workers, immigrants and other people of color, especially women, who are overrepresented in our front line workforce but lack adequate pay and benefits.

We urge legislators to act now on several critical measures to help people meet basic human needs. That should include common sense measures that directly address the problems faced by the essential workers and working poor who are disproportionately at risk of COVID and hurt by the pandemic’s economic fallout.

In the housing arena, more must be done. Despite the limited eviction protections provided by Gov. Larry Hogan and the federal government, about 3,000 Maryland families were legally evicted between July 2020 and February 2021, and with the reopening of district courts on March 15 and more than 100,000 eviction cases pending, we expect to see a flood of evictions.

Rental assistance has been helpful but not enough. A loophole in existing policies that allows landlords to evict for lease expiration or nonrenewal must be closed. Further, landlords must be required to apply for rental assistance or offer a repayment plan before filing for eviction (Virginia enacted this policy in a special session with bipartisan support). Landlords are currently permitted to evict people even after having received rental assistance, essentially turning the rental assistance into a bailout for landlords rather than an effective tool to keep people housed.ADVERTISING

Despite support from prominent public health experts, financial assistance for businesses to offset the costs and outbreaks among front line workers, including in poultry plants, legislators failed to expand Maryland’s sick leave law beyond the current meager five days. Nor did they enact paid family leave, a basic benefit that is vital to helping low-income workers deal with family emergencies. A federal law providing these benefits expired at the end of December, leaving Marylanders forced to choose between their pay and their health.

The Maryland Essential Workers’ Protection Act has also failed to move. It would provide basic protections and benefits to the people who have to report to front line jobs during a pandemic, ensuring they have proper protective equipment and safe working conditions. It would also mandate $3 per hour hazard pay to compensate them for their extra costs such as child care and transportation and would guarantee they can take paid leave if forced to quarantine or to take time to bury a loved one. It’s time to compensate them for their role in keeping the economy running and providing critical services.

Finally, our state pretrial policies continue to allow unemployed and low income residents to languish in jail due to unaffordable cash bails or risk incarceration due to costly home detention monitoring fees. Those sitting pretrial in our local jails risk loss of wages, job loss, contracting COVID or worse. The legislature must move on measures to reduce local pretrial populations and eliminate costly court-mandated fines and fees that criminalize poverty and race.

These measures would provide new security to low-income Marylanders — whether it’s being able to stay in a home while we recover from this pandemic, be able to take paid leave to bury a loved one or have sick pay so a COVID-19 diagnosis doesn’t mean financial catastrophe. It’s about economic fairness — and basic human dignity.

As we wrote in a May 13, 2020 opinion piece in The Baltimore Sun, “How we respond to this extraordinary event defines us and reveals our values.” Unfortunately, the response we’ve seen thus far is a disappointing indication of where workers fall on the list of priorities.

We urge the General Assembly to do more to support workers as we continue to deal with the pandemic and worst unemployment crisis since the Great Depression.

Lisa Brown (lisabb@1199.org) is executive vice president of 1199 SEIU United Healthcare Workers East, Maryland/DC Region. John Nethercut (nethercutj@publicjustice.org) is executive director of the Public Justice Center. Gustavo Torres (gtorres@wearecasa.org) is executive director of CASA. Caryn York (Caryn@jotf.org), chief executive officer of Job Opportunities Task Force, also contributed to this report.

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