As the Baltimore Sun reported, on Saturday a Baltimore judge issued a temporary restraining order requiring the state of Maryland to continue administering federal unemployment benefits, a day before the state was set to end the pandemic-related unemployment aid for tens of thousands of residents. With about 178,000 people still receiving jobless benefits as of June 19, and 85% of those receiving exclusively federal aid, two lawsuits were brought by unemployed Marylanders against Republican Gov. Larry Hogan and state Labor Secretary Tiffany Robinson to enjoin the state from cutting off what have become lifelines for countless individuals and families impacted by the COVID-19 economic slowdown. Hogan is one of about two dozen Republican governors who have moved to prematurely terminate the federal unemployment assistance programs, which do not expire until September.
In finding a temporary restraining order necessary, Baltimore Circuit Judge Lawrence Fletcher-Hill found that the plaintiffs met the burden of showing that they would be “irreparably harmed” if the benefits were ended and that they are likely to succeed, at least in part, on the merits. More specifically, the judge found that the plaintiffs may be able to prove that the state government is legally obligated under state law to maximize the use of federal assistance programs. Celebrating the favorable yet temporary ruling, a representative from UNITE HERE Local 7, which represents four of the plaintiffs, noted that it was “welcome news for the thousands of hospitality workers in Maryland who are still laid off due to the pandemic,” which “will give people a little more time to be recalled or find other jobs.”
Meanwhile, as Bloomberg reported, in North Carolina, Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper vetoed legislation from the state’s Republican-majority legislature that would prematurely cut off the expanded federal unemployment benefits programs in an aggressive attempt to force unemployed people back to work. The bill not only would have ended the federal supplement of $300 per week, but also proposed stricter work-search rules for unemployment recipients, including a requirement that they respond to a job interview request within 48 hours or risk losing benefits. In announcing his veto on Friday, Gov. Cooper argued that “[p]rematurely stopping [the federal] benefits hurts our state by sending back money that could be injected into our economy with people using it for things like food and rent.” In Wisconsin, Democratic Gov. Tony Evers likewise vetoed a bill passed by the state’s Republican-majority legislature that also would have ended the federal benefits early.
In other news, as Bloomberg reported, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear a case challenging the fees and investment options in Northwestern University’s retirement plan, following advice from acting Solicitor General Elizabeth B. Prelogar that the justices take the case. Plaintiffs, employees at Northwestern, are urging the Court to undo a 2020 decision by a Seventh Circuit panel that they say improperly imposed a heightened pleading standard on those aiming to bring fiduciary breach claims under ERISA. According to Prelogar, at least two of plaintiffs-employees’ claims against Northwestern should be viable under ERISA: offering expensive, retail share class investments when identical investments are available at lower cost to participants, and charging higher-than-reasonable administrative fees. As Bloomberg noted, Northwestern is one of over 20 prominent universities to be sued under ERISA for retirement plan mismanagement since 2016. The case is captioned Hughes v. Northwestern Univ., U.S., No. 19-1401, certiorari granted 7/2/21.
Lastly, out in Kansas, as the Topeka Capital-Journal reported, members of the local union representing Frito-Lay workers in Topeka have voted to strike after lengthy mediated contract negotiations yielded little progress on efforts to improve wages and address staffing shortages. According to a representative from Local 218 of the Bakery, Confectionary, Tobacco Workers & Grain Millers Union, members voted 353-30 in favor of a strike, which is set to take effect on Monday, July 5 after one more meeting with management’s bargaining team. In an open letter to Frito-Lay, one worker, Cherie Renfro, responded to the company’s apparent “shock” at its workers’ choice to authorize a strike and provided a glimpse behind the scenes at what has led employees to pursue this last line of defense. Notably, she described that after a co-worker collapsed and died on the floor, management had workers move the body and put in another co-worker to keep the line going. In addition, Renfro noted that they worked during the entire COVID-19 quarantine while office personnel worked from home, but without any hazard pay, bonuses, rewards or recognition, and that management now purports to tell those same workers that the company can’t afford to give raises. Renfro concluded her fiery piece by telling Frito-Lay directly: “Your threats and bully tactics only fuel our fire. You have pushed us into a corner and we came out swinging. And now you’re ‘shocked’?”
Happy Fourth of July!