Maryland rolls out measures to help struggling unemployment website

After a rough start on Friday, Maryland’s new one-stop unemployment benefits website has been struggling to handle a massive volume of applicants.

And now the state’s Labor Department has some changes underway to help the BEACON One-Stop application system work better.

For starters, the system will be taken down every morning from 1 a.m. to 3 a.m. “until the problem is fixed to perform maintenance and resolve any ongoing technical issues,” Labor Secretary Tiffany Robinson said in a statement Monday.

The website will also feature a virtual waiting line. Visitors will be able to see an updated wait-time estimate, then sign up for an email to alert them when the system is ready for them.

“This will provide more certainty about when you will receive assistance,” Robinson said, “but, more importantly, it will help ensure the capacity problems the platform experienced in the past do not reoccur.”

In addition, the state is limiting what can be done on the system during the week. On Sundays and Mondays, only those who are filing weekly claim certifications can file on the system. Customers can file new claims and complete all other activities the rest of the week.

The state partnered with an outside benefits-administration vendor to set up the site, in the interest of getting something started more quickly, Robinson said.

“If we had attempted to program our older system to accept applications for the CARES Act, it would have taken weeks, if not months. This was not an option,” she said. “… We were hopeful that our partnership with the vendor would provide rapid solutions. Instead, it has caused a series of challenges for applicants.”

Those problems have lingered, so much so that the system was taken down altogether on Sunday.

The BEACON site is intended to help the newly unemployed — including gig workers — apply for expanded unemployment benefits as the state weathers the pandemic’s economic impact.

One of those affected is Michael Jones, an artist and gallery owner in Frederick.

He first filed for unemployment benefits in mid-March, and since then has gone on to the Maryland Department of Labor’s website to file the required weekly check-in.

“After you’ve done your initial claim, it used to take about 10 minutes to do that” said Jones.

But when he tried to go through the check-in process Monday morning on the new BEACON site, Jones said, it took three and a half hours.

“There were probably three times as many questions as there were on the old site,” Jones said.

When users visit the website, instead of seeing a progress bar to tell them how long to wait, they see a small figure walking, he said. As the hours wore on, Jones found himself worrying that the little figure would “just fall to his knees and give up and the screen would go blank, and I’d have to start all over again.”

The site has had some success since its launch: More than 179,000 accounts have been activated; more than 61,000 new claims have been filed, and more than 138,000 weekly certifications have been submitted.

While the site can be used on a mobile phone, a spokesperson for Robinson said users would have “the best experience” on a desktop or laptop.

The site is here. It was down at the time this story was published.

WTOP’s Kate Ryan contributed to this report.

Jack Pointer

Jack contributes to when he's not working as the afternoon/evening radio writer.

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