The Maryland Department of Labor is, in the words of Gov. Larry Hogan, “moving heaven and earth” to clear a backlog of 49,000 unemployment claims.
When Hogan announced $250 million in the latest effort to help small businesses on Thursday, he was asked about the status of claims — in particular, what’s being done to speed up the response to the backlog.
Maryland struggled to handle hundreds of thousands of unemployment claims last spring, and the state was slammed by state lawmakers and many applicants who described waiting on the phone for hours.
Hogan said that the department of labor had handled 788,000 claims since the coronavirus pandemic struck.
“That’s more than we usually do in several years,” Hogan said, and nearly 94% of those claims had been resolved.
Some 622,091 applicants got payments, while another 116,000 claims were denied because they were found ineligible for benefits, he said.
Maryland state Del. Courtney Watson, a Democrat from Howard County, said she doesn’t dispute the numbers or the fact that the state’s been overwhelmed by the sheer number of applications for benefits.
But she also said, “We have desperate people, and the intensity of that desperation is increasing every day exponentially.”
Watson said the residents she’s hearing from work in a wide variety of industries. And she said their claims are getting “hung up” over issues stemming from changing circumstances. For example, some were laid off, then they were brought back for a short time, but were laid off again.
“It’s really hard, and it’s really sad to listen to their stories and know that they’re desperate,” she said.
Hogan said of the 49,000 claims that are backlogged, roughly 47,000 are being investigated.
“That doesn’t mean that they’re bad people,” Hogan said. It simply means that further information was needed — in many cases an interview with a department of labor official before the claim could be processed further.
Hogan said he understands the frustration of those still waiting to get their claims resolved.
“My heart goes out to every single person whose case hasn’t been resolved,” but he said the logistics of arranging those interviews takes time. “Even if you have a couple of thousand people working on it.”
Watson agreed that the straggling cases tend to be those that are not “plain vanilla” cases, but ones that require some sorting out. But she said, “This remaining problem of interviewing people is where the hang up is and where the most desperation is, and that needs to be addressed.”
Hogan said despite the backlog, the state’s BEACON portal used to process the state’s unemployment claims is “now the best in the country.” It was upgraded after a rollout that was fraught with problems that resulted in committee hearings in Annapolis.
An upgrade to the BEACON portal last month was not free of technical glitches when it launched, causing frustration among claimants unable to file their claims. The issue has been resolved.
Hogan has frequently mentioned the fact that the state moved quickly to come up with its own method of processing claims.
“We were the first state in America to have a website” that was intended to handle the crush of unemployment benefits claims that followed the impact of layoffs and business closures due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Maryland State Sen. Jim Rosapepe, a Democrat from Prince George’s County, served on one of the committees that held hearings on the state’s initial rollout of the unemployment insurance portal in the spring.
Rosapepe said that, like Watson, he continues to hear from people who lost their jobs due to the pandemic and who continue to struggle. He said when the Maryland General Assembly returns for the legislative session in January, he expects lawmakers to take a broader look at the problem.
Referring to the state’s unemployment system before the pandemic, Rosapepe said, “It wasn’t good enough before,” and the pandemic served to underscore the weaknesses in many government operations. So in his view, “In the case of the unemployment system, we gotta fix it — big time.”
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