Maryland’s jobless benefits app needs upgrade, lawmakers say

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The Department of Labor’s BEACON app has helped unemployed workers navigate Maryland’s benefits system, but state lawmakers told Secretary Tiffany P. Robinson on Thursday that a crucial gap remains — the inability of users to file for first-time benefits on smart phones.

“We [have] received a lot of phone calls from constituents who — when they lost their job — lost the only access they had to a computer,” said Sen. Sarah K. Elfreth (D-Anne Arundel). “We did a rough count in my office, and about 30% of the folks that we were helping were in a position of not having access to, or their own, computer.”

Robinson said the state’s unemployment app has numerous functions, but it was intentionally designed not to be used for initial applications because of the amount of information that must be gathered.

“I was informed that there would be a lot of complex programming that would go into that, and in the end, the user-experience would not be great, simply because of the number of clicks, the amount of information, that is required,” she said. “And the last thing we wanted to do was making anything more difficult for our customer.”

Robinson praised the agency’s contractor, Sagitec, for moving quickly to update the app, and the BEACON benefits system as a whole, to incorporate a wave of new federal benefits approved by Congress in the wake of the pandemic.

More than 600,000 out-of-work Marylanders and 5,300 employers have downloaded the app since its launch.

Like other states, Maryland has struggled since the outbreak of the pandemic to cope with a historic surge in jobless benefits claims.

Members of the General Assembly said their offices have become de facto “satellite” locations for people who have had trouble getting through to personnel in the Department of Labor on the phone.

Robinson told lawmakers the agency has successfully processed 97.9% of the 863,806 claims that have been filed, paying out $14.2 billion to the 717,448 Marylanders deemed eligible.

Nearly 15% of those who applied — just under 130,000 people — had their claims denied. The 2.1% of claims that remain “pending” represent 17,894 applications, the secretary said.

Robinson said that fraud remains an “overwhelming” issue. “It’s a type of identity-theft fraud that our programs were not used to and had not had to deal with before.”

Del. Jared Solomon (D-Montgomery) said lawmakers still routinely get calls from constituents who can’t reach a claims specialist on the phone.

“Our call volume is down, our caseload is down, but we still have customers that need our help,” Robinson acknowledged. “We know that there’s work left to do.”

She said her agency has added more than 2,200 workers — state employees and contractors — to handle the spike in applications. “That’s a lot of people to train on a very complex program.”

Call volume fell dramatically in September, when a supplemental federal benefits program expired, she added.

To help people who don’t have a computer or aren’t good with technology, the labor department has added video kiosks around the state, at jobs centers and other locations. They allow benefits-seekers to interact with someone they can see and who can help them upload documents or update their status.

Pressed by lawmakers about the inability of unemployed Marylanders to file initial applications on mobile devices, Robinson said the agency is “evaluating all options.”

“If this is the feedback that you are hearing… we will re-evaluate.”

The secretary said the labor department is sharing data with the state’s Health Benefits Exchange. People who are newly out-of-work often don’t realize that they may qualify for free or low-cost coverage under the Affordable Care Act.

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