Former Democratic National Committee Chairman and gubernatorial candidate Tom Perez Monday slammed Gov. Larry Hogan’s administration’s handling of the state’s unemployment insurance system, saying it is “unconscionable” that many Marylanders have waited several months to get their benefits and that that dilemma represents a “failure of governance.”
He also said it may be unlawful for the governor to end the federal unemployent benefits, which prompted Hogan’s communications director, Michael Ricci, to refute that allegation.
“Clearly, Secretary Perez did not actually read the law. It gives states the authority to opt-out of these programs, as most states have now done to try and address the labor shortage,” Ricci said.
Ricci pointed to a Cornell Law review article as evidence of that claim.
“Any State which desires to do so may enter into and participate in an agreement under this section with the Secretary of Labor (in this section referred to as the “Secretary”). Any State which is a party to an agreement under this section may, upon providing 30 days written notice to the Secretary, terminate such agreement.”
Perez, 59, served as Maryland’s Secretary of Labor from 2007-2009. He later served in the Obama administration as U.S. Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights and U.S. Secretary of Labor. Perez led the DNC from Feb. 2017 to January 2021 when he was succeeded by Jamie Harrison of South Carolina.
You have high name recognition at the national level but some of your primary opponents, such as Comptroller Peter Franchot, have more experience working at the state level. How do you intend to compete with them?
Perez: I have been involved in local government on the Montgomery County Council. I was Governor Martin O’Malley’s Labor secretary here in Maryland. The work that I did in the federal government cut across Maryland. I settled one of the largest fair lending cases in the history of the Fair Housing Act on behalf of black and brown homeowners who had been victims of predatory lending practices.
I have spent a lot of time here. Both at a local, state, and federal level. I spent the better part of a decade working in Baltimore City when I led the legal clinics at University of Maryland law school. I have worked on the issues that are front and center for people, whether it is policing or making sure that people can get a good job.
What are your thoughts on Gov. Hogan’s recent decision to end the state’s participation in federal unemployment benefits and the lawsuit that has been filed that challenges that decision?
Perez: I think that decision was wrong. His (Hogan’s) first focus should have been on making sure that people who lose their jobs get their benefits in a timely fashion. It is unconscionable that people are waiting up to six months to get their unemployment benefits. That is a failure of governance.
When I was the labor secretary in Maryland we were in the throes of the Great Recession. I worked closely with our team to make sure that people got their benefits in a timely fashion. His (Hogan’s) number one job should be to make sure that the people at the Department of Labor do their job. And he has failed miserably at that.
On the issue of the extra $300, I have spoken to so many people from Unite Here Local 25. These are folks who work in the hotel industry. The hotel industry has not come back at full strength. They would like nothing more than to get back to work. But hotel occupancy rates are nowhere where they need to be because the global pandemic has really hindered international travel. So they are stuck. They are not sitting at home eating Bon Bons. They are destitute right now.
I have read the law. And the law says that the Commissioner of Labor shall accept money from the federal government. It does not say may or might or can if they want. I think this is really a vivid illustration of a governor who has not sat down and talked to people like those hotel workers who desperately want to work. But they cannot because the industry has not come back yet.
During the 2021 legislative session the General Assembly enacted a series of landmark police reform bills into law over the governor’s veto. Are you satisfied with the legislation or does more need to be done?
Perez: I think the Democrats did really important work in making sure that we have effective constitutional policing in our state. The most important tool that a police officer has in his or her arsenal is the trust of the community.
I have spent over a dozen years working with police departments that encountered significant challenges. They were broken in many respects. And we were able to make real progress in reforming. Because we took accountability measures that enabled to them to rebuild trust and enabled the community to have a seat at the table.
All too frequently I hear people say: “Are you on the police’s side or are you on the community’s side? That is a false choice. I applaud Democrats in the state Senate and in the House of Delegates for the work that they did. Now we have to implement it. I think that there are some real opportunities in the implementation phase to re-think policing across the state and to make sure that we are doing so in a manner that will reduce crime and restore public confidence in policing.
What do you make of the impact of labor laws such as those passed in California that essentially compel employers to turn freelancers and part-time workers into full-time employees?
Perez: I have not read the bill. I hate to opine on bills that I have not read.
But what we are seeing across the country is this conversation about how to make sure in today’s economy where we have a lot of people who work in the App economy, like Uber and Lyft and Door Dash, and things of those nature: How do you find a third way to make sure that workers are protected and have flexibility and have some protections? That is the conversation taking place across the country.
In Maryland when I was labor secretary we dealt with this issue of classification. Because there were many workers who were an employee in every sense of the word, but employers were classifying them as independent contractors. And when they do that they are hurting the workers, they are hurting other employers who are playing by the rules, and they are hurting the tax collectors. Because they are doing that to avoid paying workers compensation and unemployment insurance.
MarylandReporter.com: What are the three main issues you would champion if elected governor?
Perez: Educational equity. Not just in the pre-K-12 context. But learning is life-long. As labor secretary, I invested a lot of time in making sure that people have the skills to compete for the jobs in the 21st Century. Making sure that we invest in our education from cradle to grave. Making sure that adults who have been displaced because their job is no longer there have the opportunities to up-skill and compete for the jobs of tomorrow.
Making sure that people can feed their family. Making sure that they have access to those middle-class jobs is a critical priority.
I want to make sure that Maryland becomes the first state in the country where every person has access to health insurance. We are 94% there. But we still have over 300,000 people who do not have health insurance. I have a plan to make sure that they get that health insurance.