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2023 legislative spotlight: Housing and workplace justice

January 30, 2023

The 2023 session of the Maryland General Assembly has begun! In the coming weeks, we’ll spotlight a few of the bills we’re working on to promote economic justice and race equity. This month, we invite you to check out legislative priorities from our Human Right to Housing Project and Workplace Justice Project.

Housing Justice

108,000 Maryland households are behind on rent amid skyrocketing rent inflation and economic uncertainty. As a member of Renters United Maryland (RUM), the PJC is working with legislators and a new governor on four priorities for Maryland renters. These bills seek to sustain emergency rental assistance, enable local “just cause” eviction protection, create a legal tool for tenants to win repairs together, and block unlicensed landlords from using our courts for eviction. You can learn more about this advocacy on RUM’s website.

Sustain emergency rental assistance

Federal funds for emergency rental assistance are running out and evictions are returning to pre-pandemic rates. We joined five county executives and more than 50 organizations to ask for $175 million in FY 24 to help over 17,000 households avoid eviction. Without significant investment, tens of thousands of predominantly Black and Latine families, who are still battered by the pandemic and an unstable economy, will likely face eviction. We continue to ask the Governor and the General Assembly to take urgent action to provide these funds in the state budget.

Local enabling legislation for just cause eviction

Landlords often terminate or non-renew tenancies when tenants organize for their rights, demand that repairs are made, or complain about violations of the law. “Just cause” laws protect tenants from this kind of retaliation and promote housing stability for tenants and neighborhoods. This bill will enable local jurisdictions to pass a law providing that landlords must have a good reason to non-renew a lease. 

Sponsor: Del. Jheanelle Wilkins

Tenant Safety Act

The Tenant Safety Act will allow groups of tenants to access a “rent escrow” process to collectively hold the landlord accountable for serious conditions of disrepair that threaten the lives, health, and safety of multiple occupants with the same landlord.

Sponsor: Del. Vaughn Stewart

Block illegally operating landlords from eviction court (HB 36 / SB 100)

Many Maryland counties and cities require landlords to pass a periodic property inspection and obtain a rental license in order to lawfully operate rental properties. Yet illegally operating landlords easily use the courts’ streamlined eviction procedures to continue their illegal operations. This incentivizes non-compliance with local laws, hurts renters who report the illegal activity, and undermines local agencies in their efforts to eradicate unsafe housing.

This bill would stop landlords who do not have an operating license from using the court to evict tenants in localities that have a licensing law. The bill passed by huge margins in 2022 but was vetoed by Governor Hogan.

Sponsors: Del. Mary Lehman and Sen. Shelly Hettleman

Workplace Justice

Limit recovery of the overpayment of unemployment benefits due to agency mistakes (HB 140 / SB 136)

Because of its own errors or a claimant’s honest mistake, the Maryland Department of Labor often pays unemployed Marylanders more unemployment benefits than they are eligible for. These Marylanders did not engage in any fraud, and many relied on the benefits to cover the essentials of life: rent, food, gas, and other basics. Maryland law currently allows the state to recover overpaid benefits by keeping 100% of any unemployment benefits for which a claimant may be eligible in the future, regardless of whether the overpayment resulted from fraud or the agency’s mistake. The result is that many people who need benefits due to continued unemployment (or unemployment on some later date) don’t get any benefits at all.

To address this issue, many other states provide that when claimants are overpaid, but not as a result of fraud, the state can keep up to 50% of the unemployment benefits but the claimant gets the remaining 50%. This balances the state’s interest in recovering overpaid benefits with the claimant’s interest in surviving. But Maryland takes the full 100%.

This bill would align Maryland with these other states by requiring that for overpayments arising from circumstances other than fraud, the state could keep up to 50% of the claimant’s weekly benefit amount and up to 25% if the weekly benefit amount is less than $100. 

Bill sponsors: Del. Julie Palakovich Carr, Del. Lorig Charkoudian, and Sen. Kathy Klausmeier

Make noncompete agreements unenforceable for low-wage jobs

Employers sometimes require their employees to sign “noncompete agreements” – contract provisions prohibiting an employee from working for other employers in the same field. Noncompete agreements keep people trapped in jobs, suppress wages, decrease job mobility, and are also bad for business. In the past, noncompete agreements were used mostly for high earners, but employers have been using them more and more for low-wage workers. Such agreements are especially harmful for low-wage workers, who need to maximize their earning power to support themselves and their families.

In 2019, the Maryland General Assembly passed a bill that made noncompete agreements unenforceable if the employee earned $15 per hour or less. But the minimum wage – which was then $10.10 per hour – has since increased, which means that this law protects fewer and fewer workers.

This bill provides a technical fix that will restore the original intent of the law: protecting workers who earn 150% of minimum wage or less. It does this by moving from $15 per hour to $22.50 per hour the wage rate employees can earn and not have to worry about exploitative noncompete agreements.   

Sponsors: Del. CT Wilson and Sen. Will Smith

Require residential service agencies to classify personal care aides as employees in order to receive Medicaid reimbursement

Most home care provided in Maryland is funded by Medicaid. Much of it is carried out under programs operated by the Maryland Department of Health’s Office of Long Term Services and Supports. Unfortunately, many of the home care agencies (called “residential service agencies” or RSAs by Maryland’s Health Code) that employ personal care aides to provide care under these programs wrongly call the workers independent contractors. This misclassification hurts workers by worsening job quality, cutting them out of the social safety net, and imposing on them a higher “self-employment” tax burden when they should be getting a tax refund. It hurts consumers by shrinking the size of the workforce they rely on for their independence and by increasing worker turnover, which – given the intimate nature of the work – can be traumatizing. Misclassification hurts law-abiding RSAs that face unfair competition from RSAs that save money by shirking their obligations as workers’ employers. And it hurts the State of Maryland by depriving the unemployment insurance trust fund (among other things) of critical revenue that Maryland and its workers depend on.

This bill would fix the problem by providing that the Maryland Department of Health only reimburse RSAs for in-home personal care provided under certain Medicaid waiver programs if the aides who do the work are classified as employees. It is a simple solution to a problem that has long eluded one. 

Sponsors: Del. Robbyn Lewis and Sen. Pam Beidle

Raise the Medicaid reimbursement rate for residential service agencies and raise the required wage for personal care aides

Personal care aides deserve to be fairly compensated for the care they provide to older adults and people with disabilities. But one factor that limits their wages is the Medicaid reimbursement rate that flows to programs operated by the Maryland Department of Health’s Office of Long Term Services and Supports. The hourly rate that residential service agencies receive for an hour of home care that workers provide under these programs is currently $23. Not only is this reimbursement rate too low, but aside from the minimum wage, the state sets no minimum rate that workers must receive. As a result, thousands of workers whose labor is funded by Medicaid earn wages that trap them in poverty. 

This bill would increase to $25 the hourly Medicaid reimbursement rate for certain home care programs, while simultaneously require that workers be paid at least $16 an hour. The bill would make this pay ratio requirement permanent by requiring that as reimbursement rates increase, workers must be paid at least 64% of the hourly Medicaid reimbursement rate. The bill would also create a system to monitor and enforce these requirements.

Sponsor: Del. Healther Bagnall