Assembly OKs revised jobless benefits

Changes to bring in $126 million in federal funds

March 24, 2010|By Julie Bykowicz | julie.bykowicz@baltsun.com

The Maryland General Assembly passed a measure Tuesday that changes unemployment benefits in a way that enables the state to tap into nearly $127 million in federal stimulus money.

The money will arrive as soon as Gov. Martin O'Malley, a Democrat who pushed for the reforms, signs the bill into law. It is emergency legislation, so that could happen quickly.

With the state facing a 7.5 percent unemployment rate - a quarter-century high even though it is lower than the national unemployment rate of 9.7 percent - employers are paying huge fees to cover benefits for out-of-work Marylanders.

Although O'Malley saw the federal money as a way to immediately reduce the cost of unemployment insurance, the Maryland Chamber of Commerce and other business groups persuaded lawmakers to stockpile it in the state's trust fund, which they said will help employers bring down rates as the recession lifts.

Other provisions in the legislation - heartily endorsed by the business groups - allow employers to spread unemployment-insurance payments out over a year and decrease penalties for late payments.

The House of Delegates overwhelmingly approved the same plan the Senate had unanimously signed off on earlier.

The measure increases the number of people who can access benefits by shifting the work period reviewed when calculating claims. It also extends benefits to more part-time workers and those in qualified job-training programs.

Those changes will cost employers about $20 million extra each year, which prompted the Maryland Chamber and others to oppose the bill. But a compromise that lawmakers struck with those groups was designed to offset the increases by reducing other benefits, including eliminating sick-pay claims and decreasing the amount a person can make while collecting unemployment.

"The governor is obviously very pleased that the business community came together with legislative leaders and the administration to work out this fix, and maintain solvency of the trust fund," Shaun Adamec, an O'Malley spokesman, said in an e-mail.

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