Life on $173 a week stirs push for jobless pay raise

Eased eligibility for unemployment also being sought

March 29, 2002|By Kristine Henry | Kristine Henry,SUN STAFF

Making ends meet on $352 a week was struggle enough for Geneva Miller, but after she lost her housekeeping position at a downtown hotel she was faced with trying to manage on her $173 weekly unemployment check.

The former Wyndham Baltimore Inner Harbor hotel employee is now part of a loose coalition pushing Maryland lawmakers to increase unemployment benefits and loosen up the eligibility requirements.

"With economics being the way it is and the high prices of everything, people can't live," said Miller, 56, who resides with her daughter and granddaughter in East Baltimore. "You can't live alone, you have to have a roommate to share bills with you."

A group of about 75 people from area unions and the NAACP rallied yesterday in front of the state's unemployment offices on Eutaw Street in support of a bill in the General Assembly that would raise the maximum weekly benefit from $280 to $310 and change the way eligibility is determined. The bill, sponsored by Del. Hattie N. Harrison, has cleared the House and is scheduled to be considered Tuesday at a Senate Finance Committee hearing.

"Maryland's benefits are some of the lowest in the country," Harrison said. "Now we're asking for $310 and to me that isn't even a living wage."

A joint study issued this month by the Economic Policy Institute, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities and the National Employment Law Center ranked Maryland 13th from the bottom in terms of the percentage of unemployed people - 32.4 percent - for whom a state provides benefits.

That is in part because of the way the state calculates eligibility, said Nicholas Weiner, a senior research analyst for the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Union Local 7, which organized the rally.

The state takes into account only the wages earned in the first four of the past five full quarters. That means if someone is laid off in mid-March 2002, his or her unemployment benefits would be based on earnings from October 2000 to September 2001. That can hurt anyone who has not had steady employment throughout that period. The bill would allow the last quarter in the five-quarter period to be included in the calculation.

"We think it should be recognized," said Gladys Burrell, a cafeteria cook at Johns Hopkins University. "They take taxes from you every day you work."

Del. A. Wade Kach voted against the bill both in the Economic Matters committee and on the House floor. He said this is not the right time to increase benefits because if the fund drops below a certain level, the unemployment taxes that companies pay would automatically go up.

"Our economy is showing signs of recovery, and I'm concerned about doing anything that would put more financial stress on businesses," he said. "It may harm businesses to the point where they lay off additional people."

Harrison tried to address that concern by adding a provision in the bill stating that if the added payments trigger the higher taxes, the benefits would go back to their old level.

"If you're going to take more money out of the fund, eventually there will be a day of reckoning," Kach said. "Let's try to get our business climate more healthy so we can get more people off unemployment insurance, and then I would support an increase in the maximum weekly benefit."

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