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Extra unemployment benefits heading soon to thousands of desperate Marylanders

An estimated 300,000 unemployed Marylanders will receive as much as $1,800 in long-awaited benefits as early as this weekend, state officials announced Wednesday night.

The payments come 1½ months after those thrust out of work by the coronavirus pandemic lost the extra $600 a month they had been receiving in federal assistance, leaving many increasingly desperate to pay their rent and other bills.

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To be eligible for the new funds, you need to have received at least $100 a week in unemployment during a six-week period that began with the last week of July. Starting Friday, eligible claimants can go on Maryland’s Beacon One-Stop unemployment insurance website to certify that they lost work because of the pandemic.

Within one or two days, they should receive a payment of $300 for each of the weeks that they are eligible, up to a maximum of six weeks, or $1,800, said Fallon E. Pearre, spokeswoman for the state Department of Labor.

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Maryland initially received a $431 million federal grant to pay three weeks' of the extra unemployment benefits, but that has since been increased to $718 million for six weeks, she said.

For I’tavia Carter, 28, of Baltimore, the money arrives just in time. After the original $600 a week supplement expired at the end of July, she’s been living on $176 a week in regular unemployment. She was able to pay her August rent but not September’s.

Now, with a benefit payment arriving shortly, Carter plans to head straight to the rental office of her Northeast Baltimore apartment complex and pay the current month’s rent.

“As soon as I get it," she said, “I’ll just give it to them."

It will be a relief for Carter, who had worked two jobs before the pandemic, and has been fearing eviction while waiting for the supplemental unemployment to resume.

“I couldn’t sleep because I didn’t want to wake up and see a note on my door,” she said.

Even with the new benefits, the worries of unemployed Americans aren’t over.

“What comes after the six weeks, when the money dries up?" said Jenn Anthony, 42, of Abingdon.

Anthony had worked as a server at a Baltimore County restaurant that, with COVID restrictions on how many customers it can allow inside, hasn’t re-hired everyone laid off in March.

When the original $600 a week unemployment supplement expired at the end of July, Congress couldn’t agree on extending it or at what level. The House wanted to continue it at the same level; the Senate wanted to reduce it to $200. Lawmakers left on summer break without a deal. They have since returned, but remain in a partisan impasse over additional coronavirus aid.

In early August, President Donald Trump ordered a $400-a-week unemployment benefit, with states paying $100 of it. But after many states balked, saying their depleted budgets couldn’t accommodate that, they were given the option of counting the benefits they already were paying as their share. As a result, anyone in a state that took that option who receives less than $100 in unemployment will not qualify for the extra $300.

Nearly every state has applied and been approved for the program, with all but a few opting to pay at the $300-a-week level rather than commit their own funds to provide $400. The supplement is intended as a temporary, stopgap measure while awaiting congressional action.

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It was grating to Anthony to watch Congress leave on their summer recess without extending the initial extra unemployment benefit, reducing her payment to about $175 a week once taxes were taken out.

“We put these people in place to help us,” she said. "Some of us have never needed help before.

“You look for help, and they walk out and say, ‘Fend for yourself,’” Anthony said.

Maryland officials also announced Wednesday that they are updating the Beacon unemployment insurance system. It will be down next week from 5 p.m. Wednesday, September 16, to 12:01 a.m. Sunday, September 20, for the update. State officials promise new features, such as giving claimants the ability to file appeals and respond to questions.

Beacon has frustrated many since it debuted in April, with users reporting long waits for claims to be processed and benefits to start arriving, and then jammed phone lines and unanswered emails when they sought assistance.

State officials say the system is working more smoothly now, with about 4% of claims remaining backlogged and awaiting a decision.

But on Facebook and other social media, and in calls to their state and federal legislators, many unemployed Marylanders say they continue to have problems accessing benefits. The continuing complaints prompted U.S. Sen. Chris Van Hollen and other members of Maryland’s congressional delegation to write a letter to Tiffany Robinson, the state labor secretary, saying those who have waited months for payments should get priority when the extra $300 a week becomes available.

The department responded by saying officials are working around the clock and “manually” reviewing claims to make sure they’re not fraudulent.

Robert A. Moffitt, an economics professor at the Johns Hopkins University, said not knowing if additional benefits will be approved will be difficult for people who also don’t know how long they’ll remain unemployed.

“The cut from $600 to $300 [a week] is certainly going to hurt some people,” he said. “But even if it’s only going to be $300, if Congress were to commit to that and say we’re going to extend that for as long as it takes, then people could plan their expenses in a more rational way.”

Those who favored reducing the amount have cited a study that found two-thirds of recipients made more on unemployment with the extra $600 than their regular income, providing a disincentive to return to work. Without a supplement, most people receive from 40% to 60% of their previous salaries, Moffitt said.

At this point, he said, there simply aren’t enough jobs to return to and unemployment is likely to remain high “until we get the pandemic under control.

“If people are afraid to go out, if nobody flies on airplanes,” Moffitt said, “there are going to be limits on the number of jobs that come back.”

For Carter, getting food stamps has helped. But even once the extra $300 a week benefit comes, she said it will take three weeks of the supplement just to pay one month’s rent.

She previously worked at a furniture store and had a part-time cleaning job at a hospital, although she worried about continuing the latter once the coronavirus began spreading in the area because of the sickle cell disease that afflicts her and her three-year-old son.

She is grateful the new benefit is finally arriving, and hopeful that officials will agree to a new pandemic assistance package similar to what helped so many this summer.

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Anthony said she worries about those who didn’t have much of a cushion before and, through no fault of their own, lost their jobs.

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She said her husband kept his job, and they had savings they could dip into, but it’s still a strain. Her payment likely will go toward credit card bills and other expenses that come from having a blended family of five children.

Anthony still can’t believe the lack of urgency she sees from Washington, even as millions remain out of work.

“It’s like they’re not taking it seriously,” she said. “They can’t work this out for the good of people who can’t take care of their families?”

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