January 27, 2021
The 2021 session of the Maryland General Assembly has begun! In the coming weeks, PJC advocates and allies be calling on lawmakers to pass legislation that promotes housing justice, police-free schools, workplace health and safety protections, an end to medical debt, increased public benefits programs, health equity and access, police accountability, and government access. Check out our legislative priorities below and stay tuned for ways to action.
Government Access and Accountability
As the COVID-19 pandemic surges, Maryland enters the 2021 legislative session amid a housing crisis, with the worst of evictions and foreclosures yet to come. Hundreds of thousands of Maryland families could lose their homes without the General Assembly’s swift action. As a member of the coalition Renters United Maryland, the Public Justice Center is calling on state legislators to pass the 2021 Housing Justice Package to address emergency needs of renters and homeowners during the pandemic and to overhaul Maryland’s massive eviction system. The package of five bills includes:
Help Maryland renters recover from COVID-19 by establishing a rental assistance fund and extending protections from eviction, lease terminations, rent increases, and late fees for during and after the state of emergency.
Reduce evictions and balance the court process with three bills that require first-resort to rental assistance, raise Maryland’s lowest-in-the-nation cost to sue for eviction, and establish both a court-based eviction diversion program and a right to a lawyer in eviction cases.
Protect Maryland homeowners from foreclosure during and after the state of emergency by extending the foreclosure moratorium, requiring servicers to grant forbearance and setting an opt-out plan for deferment of payments to the end of the loan without interest.
The state of Maryland spends about $10 million a year to station police in public schools across the state, in addition to millions more spent at the county level. But there is no reliable evidence to suggest that putting police in schools deters school shootings or otherwise makes schools safer in any way. In fact, the main effect of regular police presence in schools is to criminalize children for minor behaviors: most school-based arrests are for low-level offenses that are better handled outside the juvenile and criminal systems by school staff and parents, such as fights without weapons or disruption.
The impact of school policing also disproportionately targets students of color and students with disabilities. Students with Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) receive 23% of arrests even though they make up only 12% of the student population. Black students receive 56% of school-based arrests statewide despite representing only about a third of the student population, and there are no differences in behavior across race. In collaboration with grassroots student- and community-led organizations across the state, we are advocating for legislation to get police out of our schools and reinvest in student mental health services, wraparound supports, and restorative approaches.
The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed weaknesses in the Maryland sick and safe leave law (the Healthy Working Families Act, HWFA) that PJC fought so hard to make a reality. In particular, essential workers who cannot telework face high risk of exposure to illness, including coronavirus. Yet too many of these front-facing workers are exempt from the HWFA cannot earn even a single day of sick leave. Front-facing public employees are also overwhelmingly Black, Latino, and other people of color, and are more likely to be the only source of income for their families. Ensuring these workers can access paid sick leave is more critical now, given the coronavirus public health emergency that is disproportionately impacting them. And we are working to do just that.
We are advocating to expand Maryland’s sick leave law to ensure that the workers who fuel our economy are front and center in conversations regarding how to weather this crisis. This bill will expand the HWFA to provide for paid leave during public health emergencies and to expand coverage to agricultural and temporary workers, who were exempt from protection previously.
Additionally, we are supporting a package of bills to protect Maryland workers during the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond as a member of Marylanders for Food and Farmworker Protections. The package includes our earned sick leave expansion above as well as:
Workers across the state – including food and farmworkers – have shared horrific stories of having inadequate personal protective equipment (PPE), having no opportunity to social distance, being required to come to work even with COVID-19 symptoms, and facing retaliation for requesting COVID-19 protections. More than a dozen states, including Virginia, have issued Emergency Temporary Standards or other emergency regulations to adopt comprehensive and enforceable worker health protections. Governor Larry Hogan, despite calls this summer from dozens of organizations, workers, and the Democratic members of Maryland’s Congressional delegation, has refused to issue mandatory workplace protections, leaving workers with no recourse. This legislation will compel MOSH to issue an ETS right away and develop a permanent aerosol transmissible disease standard so that workers have protections that will be enacted immediately in future pandemics. *This MOSH provision will also appear in the Maryland Essential Workers Protection Act, which we support as well.
This bill would ensure that all Maryland workers provided with workplace housing are guaranteed safe and healthful living conditions regardless of their immigration or visa status. Workers in Maryland’s agricultural and meat processing industries are primarily H-2 and migrant workers who are highly vulnerable to COVID-19 because their employers have not provided adequate workplace and housing protections. Among the problems plaguing workers in this industry, their employers often transport them to work in crowded vehicles and provide shoddy housing that forces workers to sleep in crowded bunks and barracks. Under some circumstances, these living conditions are not only inhumane but create a high-risk environment for COVID-19 illness. The bill requires the Maryland Department of Labor to develop consistent workplace housing guidelines for employers, require employers to develop plans for complying with those guidelines, and follow up on compliance by conducting inspections of employer-provided housing.
The PJC is part of a coalition advancing multi-pronged legislation designed to advance the health and safety protections for essential workers during emergencies like COVID-19. Led by our partners at 1199 SEIU, this bill will: require emergency action plans; establish statewide emergency protocols and standards; establish a right to unsafe work; mandate quarantine and bereavement leave; and mandate additional hazard pay for hours worked during a state of emergency.
The practice of suing patients to recover money for medical services has had a disproportionate and devastating impact on Black patients in Baltimore, as well as low-income and working-class patients The practice of hospitals suing patients to recover debts for medical services has had a devastating impact on low-income Marylanders. Medical debt collection not only threatens the financial and housing security of patients; it also places an immense emotional and physical burden on patients and their families. The PJC’s Health Rights Project will be advocating with the End Medical Debt Maryland coalition for the passage of the Medical Debt Protection Act, which will reform medical debt collection practices by strengthening protections for patients.
Public benefits programs, like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, also called food stamps) and Temporary Cash Assistance (TCA), are critical for individuals and families living in poverty to help them secure basic needs, such as food, stable housing, and quality healthcare. The Health Rights Project will be supporting efforts to increase the amount available to individuals and families for public benefits programs. We are supporting legislation to require the Department of Human Services to implement the Heat and Eat program, a federal program that would enable individuals who are eligible for utility assistance to receive additional SNAP dollars. We will also be supporting efforts to expand services covered by Medical Assistance to meet the health needs of the community.
The pandemic has exposed the cracks in our healthcare delivery system and exacerbated long existing disparities in health outcomes for people of color. The Health Rights Project will support legislation designed to address and eliminate these disparities, including efforts to require implicit bias training for clinicians, preserve and reimburse telehealth services, and expand access to affordable health insurance and care for low-income individuals.
We are working with a coalition of more than 75 grassroots, community, and advocacy groups from across the state and survivors of police violence to develop a legislative strategy in response to strong, renewed demands from the public for police reform and accountability. Led by the ACLU of Maryland, the coalition is advocating for five critical police reforms:
In coalition with Marylanders for Open Government, the PJC will seek to strengthen 2015 improvements to the Maryland Public Information Act, including expanding the jurisdiction of the PIA Compliance Board and the PIA Ombudsman to resolve disputes.