Could Maryland law change help ease backlog of requests for jobless benefits?

Unemployment claims are released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. (Getty Images/iStockphoto/Eblis)
The Maryland office that processes unemployment claims is jammed with a backlog of cases, and the governor believes part of the holdup is related to state law.

Maryland is a mitigation state. “That means we, and three other states in the country, are required to mitigate the disputes on every single claim,” said Maryland Labor Secretary Tiffany P. Robinson.

“In other states, those claims can be denied, and those claimants immediately have the right to appeal,” Robinson said.

The issue was raised during a virtual Board of Public Works meeting Wednesday, in which Comptroller Peter Franchot made a passionate appeal for immediate aid to be provided to people who have been waiting for months for interviews for their claims to be reviewed.

“We may consider changing the state law so that we’re not one of (the) states that has these constraints and slows everything down,” Gov. Larry Hogan said.

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“There’s 41,000 that are complaining about not getting paid, and that’s because they don’t have the documentation, there’s a dispute with the employer or the federal or state law will require that process — 41,000 hearings is a long time,” Hogan said.

There are only 615 claims in the state, according to Hogan, that are being evaluated for other issues.

With the COVID-19 pandemic, Maryland has seen a 5,000% increase in unemployment claims, Robinson told the board. Some people who applied for benefits months ago now are waiting eight to 12 weeks for an interview regarding their claim.

So, what’s being done? “We are in the process of actually tripling the size of the division to handle this crisis,” Robinson said.

The office has added phone lines, nearly doubled the staff that picks up the phones and expanded the interactive voice response system.

A contract was expected to be awarded Wednesday to add anywhere from 100 to 500 adjudication staff to review pending claims.

“That is the most complex job in our division because those employees require either legal experience, investigative experience, insurance experience,” she said. “They’re the ones dealing with these pending claims that are the most complex.”

Another new tool, available as of last week, allows someone who submits an inquiry form to get immediate feedback with a claim identifier that consolidates all their information in one place.

“That’s very helpful because, as you probably know, many of our customers are not only reaching out to our staff, but they’re reaching out to you (Franchot) and to the governor and to their legislator, and we end up duplicating efforts by multiple people working on the same claim,” Robinson said.

“This consolidates everything into one place. It gives direct feedback and access to that information and all notes in their file directly to the claimant,” Robinson added.

In major investigation sweeps starting in July, the Maryland Department of Labor has flagged and investigated hundreds of thousands of potentially fraudulent unemployment claims filed since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic. “It is critical that the department reviews and verifies documentation manually,” the department said.

The fraudulent claims keep coming, and the “bad actors are pretty bold,” Robinson said.

On Tuesday morning, Robinson said several thousand claims hit the system that had real Social Security numbers and real addresses. But the user names associated with them were very similar. The system’s technology was able to block all of it, she said.

Kristi King

Kristi King is a veteran reporter who has been working in the WTOP newsroom since 1990. She covers everything from breaking news to consumer concerns and the latest medical developments.

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