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Maryland lawmakers grilled Secretary of Labor Tiffany P. Robinson over continuing unemployment insurance backlogs in the state at a Monday meeting, and said they feel “left in the dark” by the Department of Labor.
Members of the Joint Committee on Unemployment Insurance Oversight said at the panel’s Monday meeting that, despite efforts by the General Assembly to expedite unemployment insurance to Marylanders, they’re still hearing from constituents who aren’t getting that aid in a timely manner.
Lawmakers on the panel were concerned about residents who’ve waited months for unemployment insurance, and others who have a large backlog of unpaid claims due to adjudication issues. Sen. Katherine A. Klausmeier (D-Baltimore County) was particularly frustrated with some of those delays.
“Nothing seems to be working here,” Klausmeier said.
Klausmeier said she’s heard from constituents who don’t hear back from their case managers for long periods of time, and constituents consistently say they can’t “get through” to anyone at the Department of Labor.
“I’d like to have a quarter for every ‘I can’t get through’ because I’d be rich,” Klausmeier said.
Robinson said the Department of Labor doesn’t have the resources to answer every single call coming in about unemployment, even though the department has added 2,168 new unemployment insurance staff since the onset of the pandemic.
“I would need to hire about 10,000 people,” Robinson said. “I don’t have the funding for that or the capacity to train 10,000 people.”
Robinson underscored the sheer volume of unemployment claims in her presentation to lawmakers, and said the state has received more than 2.8 million new claims since the onset of the pandemic. Additionally, the state has received more than 28.3 million weekly claim certifications since the onset of the pandemic, and paid more than 24.2 million of those certifications to the tune of $13 billion in state and federal benefits.
Robinson said roughly 97.5% of complete claims that have been filed were processed, 82.8% have been paid, 14.7% have been denied and 2.5% are pending. Most of those pending claims are awaiting further investigation, and can’t be processed until they are investigated due to “conflicting information provided by the claimant and the claimant’s previous employer,” according to Robinson’s presentation.
Advocates recently took to court to demand that Department of Labor officials get unemployment claims to claimants who have been denied their benefits and put “on hold.” Advocates argue in a lawsuit that some claimants are being investigated for fraud or charged for overpayment “without explanation or hearing.”
Del. C.T. Wilson (D-Charles) said he’s heard from constituents who are finally getting unemployment checks, but still haven’t received backpay for the months they waited for their claims to be processed.
“They’re very much underwater because the back pay still hasn’t been resolved,” he said.
Del. Ned Carey (D-Anne Arundel) said he was disappointed by a July 1 Department of Labor interim report on unemployment insurance. Carey’s House Bill 907 requires officials to study and report on potential unemployment reforms. The department’s final report isn’t due until later this year, but Carey said he had hoped the interim report would be more substantive.
That interim report is four pages long and outlines the Department of Labor’s search for a third-party consultant to compile the final report. Robinson said the state has since contracted with the W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research to look at the state’s trust fund and unemployment reforms.
Carey had hoped that the report would be more substantive. Wilson likewise said he felt the report was “underwhelming.”
“I felt like we were getting the brush-off,” Carey said.
Robinson said the Department of Labor is moving forward with the study and also implementing other legislative reforms aimed at improving the state’s unemployment system, but said many of those changes are “unfunded mandates.”
She also charged that her department is trying to accomplish “two inconsistent goals” in trying to expedite unemployment insurance while also guarding against unemployment fraud.
“I’m trying to get everyone paid and resolve every single issue, and I’m also trying to protect our system and protect our customers from fraud,” she said.
Klausmeier said she received an unemployment check in the mail although she never applied. She reported the potential identity theft to the Department of Labor, but questioned why she hadn’t received any updates on that case. Robinson said the Department of Labor passes along those cases to federal and state investigative agencies.
Carey and Klausmeier both urged the Department of Labor to be more communicative with lawmakers.
“We just feel that we’ve been left in the dark,” Carey said. “We’re more than willing to help you because helping you helps, ultimately, our constituents.”
Their frustrations mirrored that of Corey Johns, chief of staff for Del. Michele Guyton (D-Baltimore County), who wrote in The Baltimore Sun on Monday that he’s been contacting the department regularly on behalf of constituents but updates have been slow and often unhelpful.
“I have seen zero effort from them to improve the situation,” Johns wrote. “I have only seen an effort to remove themselves further from these issues, while people are without income for months, accruing unbeatable debts trying to survive and losing homes to foreclosure.”
That issue isn’t confined to Guyton’s office: Del. Brooke E. Lierman (D-Baltimore City) wrote on Twitter that “every office shared these frustrations.”
Robinson said unemployment claims have “fallen off, but are still high.” She anticipated that the state will be able to process claims faster after extended federal benefits expire next month and the number of claims drops.
“The pending numbers are lower than they’ve been at any time during the pandemic, so we’re moving in the right direction,” she said.