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Unemployed Maryland residents sue labor secretary over lack of benefits

A group of Maryland residents who lost jobs during the pandemic has sued the state labor secretary in federal court over failures to pay unemployment benefits as required by law.

The lawsuit seeks to require Tiffany Robinson, secretary of the Maryland Department of Labor, to fix “gross and systemic” failures to administer benefits.

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Plaintiffs include residents who applied for benefits and waited at least five months with no determination of eligibility and those who began receiving benefits that were then interrupted with no explanation. Others received benefits, then were told they were overpaid. Before benefits were cut off, they said they never received prior notice or a chance to refute overpayment claims.

The six plaintiffs, part of a proposed class action filed Nov. 24 in U.S. District Court in Baltimore, want the agency to comply with federal law and the 14th Amendment’s due process clause.

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A spokesman for the state labor department said the agency has paid out more than $14 billion in unemployment benefits since the beginning of the pandemic.

“This meritless action will only divert valuable taxpayer funds and resources from efforts to help our fellow citizens get back on their feet and into the workforce,” said the spokesman, Joseph Farren.

He noted that the lawsuit is similar to one filed in state court on behalf of unemployed workers that was dismissed early last month by a Baltimore judge.

In that case, the Unemployed Workers’ Union, a group affiliated with the Baltimore activist group Peoples Power Assembly, filed an amended lawsuit in July against the state and Robinson saying scores of out-of-work Marylanders are being denied the benefits they’re entitled to after being falsely flagged for fraud or other issues. Circuit Court Judge John Nugent found that the General Assembly did not spell out any “private right of action” allowing those with claims to seek relief from the courts before following the administrative claims and appeal process.

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In August, Robinson told state lawmakers that her team is making headway in resolving issues of people who are stuck in the system without payment.

“We are making progress, especially considering that now the claim volume is starting to drop,” Robinson said during a video briefing before an unemployment oversight committee of the General Assembly.

Some committee members appeared exasperated that problems, such as high numbers of claimants stuck in limbo without receiving payments throughout the past year and a half, continue this far into the pandemic. Payments to some laid-off workers have been delayed while the labor department reviews potentially fraudulent claims, while others wait for complicated work history situations to be sorted out.

The lawsuit alleges that the system has failed tens of thousands of Marylanders whose claims have languished for months or have been suddenly cut off with no notice or explanation. Attorneys for the plaintiffs said Maryland ranks 44th out of 53 total jurisdictions in U.S. Department of Labor rankings of timeliness of initial benefit payments.

Plaintiff Mark Gorres filed for unemployment in late May after being laid off as a senior superintendent with a hotel renovation company due to pandemic-related loss of business. After being notified he was not eligible for regular unemployment insurance and that he needed to correct personal information, he spent months working with his former employer to clarify his eligibility.

Six months later, Gorres still has not received benefits or an eligibility determination, the lawsuit said. He has had to borrow money from family for basic expenses, turn to federal assistance programs for food, and is behind on bills. He has missed medical appointments and has been unable to pay for some medications, leading as well to stress and depression.

“There is nothing I can do to repair the damage to my health resulting from going without needed medications for months,” said Gorres, a resident of Germantown, in a statement.

The lawsuit alleges that the state’s online unemployment filing system, Beacon One-Stop, and the updated Beacon 2.0 version launched in September 2020 have been “plagued with problems, including unclickable buttons, hidden functions that are not intuitive to most users, and claimants’ frequent inability to file weekly certifications on which eligibility and payment of benefits depend.”

Plaintiffs say the Beacon mobile phone application is even more limited and that labor department staff is unavailable to resolve questions.

“Unemployment insurance is a critical safety net for workers, enabling them to buy food and pay rent, and tiding them over until their next job,” said Tyra Robinson, one of the plaintiffs’ attorneys with the Public Justice Center in Baltimore, in an announcement of the lawsuit. “The system must work for people, not against them. ... We’re suing to fix the system.”

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