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Jobless claims double, with 84,000 Marylanders filing for unemployment as coronavirus shutters businesses

Unemployment claims in Maryland and across the country last week doubled over the record-setting surge of job losses the week before, as businesses continue to shut their doors in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

More than 84,000 Marylanders filed for unemployment during the week ending March 28, up from 42,334 residents the week before, according to the state Department of Labor. They were among more than 6.6 million Americans who filed jobless claims, up from 3.3 million the previous week.

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The latest signs of the virus’ economic impact came as its human toll continued to steadily climb. State health officials reported five more deaths Thursday from COVID-19, the infection caused by the coronavirus, bringing Maryland’s death toll to 36.

More than 2,300 people in the state are infected now, a 17% day-to-day jump, health officials said.

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“This fight against the coronavirus is going to take every one of us working together,” Gov. Larry Hogan said Thursday morning on "The Laurie DeYoung Show” on Baltimore’s WPOC radio.

While there were 346 new positive coronavirus cases confirmed in Maryland, another 18,890 COVID-19 tests have come back negative and 81 people have been released from isolation, health officials said.

Still officials believe COVID-19 continues to spread across Maryland and any peak is likely weeks away. After new clusters of infections were confirmed in several senior citizen facilities across the Baltimore region Wednesday, involving both residents and staff, Carroll County officials said Thursday that three more cases have been confirmed at Carroll Lutheran Village in Westminster. They include two women and a man, all in their 90s, bringing the total cases at the retirement community to seven — six residents and one staffer.

At Pleasant View Nursing Home in Mount Airy, where the state’s first facility outbreak was reported and five of the 95 residents have died, results for staff tests came through Thursday. Of 63 staffers, 18 have tested positive for COVID-19, 24 tested negative and results are pending for 21. Among residents, there were 77 positive tests.

Meanwhile, the Metropolitan Transition Center in Baltimore is on full quarantine after a corrections officer tested positive for the virus, Maryland’s prison system confirmed late Wednesday.

The latest unemployment data represent a dramatic climb that has occurred since Hogan and the leaders of most other states have ordered nonessential businesses to close their doors and for residents to stay at home whenever possible.

If Maryland Transit Administration ridership is any indication, more people are listening to that directive. Overall bus ridership dropped by more than half last week, and the agency plans to temporarily suspend service beginning Monday on 11 routes that are experiencing an average 82% drop in ridership “in order to more efficiently deploy resources to core bus service,” officials said Thursday.

But at the same time the economic paralysis is overwhelming systems for processing unemployment claims, leading to delays and problems for some filers.

“We have experienced an unprecedented surge in claims traffic," Tiffany Robinson, the state’s labor secretary, ahead of the latest jobless report, said Wednesday during a conference call with state lawmakers serving on a coronavirus work group.

Maryland’s 400 workers who process unemployment claims typically handle about 2,000 claims per week, she said. They’ve been working extra hours and on Saturdays to process the surge in applications.

Residents who usually work full-time or part-time are eligible for unemployment. Under state and federal legislation passed to address losses during the pandemic, benefits are also now available to some people who have not been formally laid off or work in “gig economy” jobs if they have lost work because of coronavirus-related closures or slumps in demand.

To better process the surge in claims, the state Department of Labor is encouraging those who have lost their jobs to stagger when they call or go online to request assistance. Those with last names A through F are asked to file on Mondays, last names G through N on Tuesdays and last names O through Z on Wednesdays, and all names on Thursday and Friday. Robinson said Marylanders will be helped whenever they call, but she said she hoped the voluntary system could spread out the work.

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The state phone system for unemployment claims runs from 7 a.m. until 6 p.m. weekdays, and applicants also can file for benefits online. The online system has been overloaded with people filing claims, so Robinson suggested going on the website early in the morning or late at night.

She asked lawmakers to spread the word to constituents that they will receive unemployment checks even if it takes some time.

“Benefits will be paid, back through the time they were separated from employment,” Robinson said. “Just because they can’t get through now, or they’re having trouble now doesn’t mean that they’re not going to get their benefits.”

Another challenge for processing claims is that many applicants are applying for unemployment for the first time, and are unfamiliar with the terminology and details of how the program works, Robinson said. Her workers are doing their best to walk applicants through the process.

“Some of the calls that we are taking are Marylanders who are dealing with some of the worst situations they’ve dealt with. They are worried and concerned,” she said. “And yet our 400 state unemployment insurance employees are also going through this pandemic. They’re worried about their own families and they are coming in to work.”

Among the counties, Baltimore County had the highest number of overall unemployment claims, with 13,352 reported claims, according to the department. In Baltimore City, 8,685 residents filed for unemployment benefits.

Job losses are most concentrated on a per-capita basis in Worcester County, where the start of the Ocean City summer tourism season is on hold and 45 people per 1,000 have filed for unemployment.

Statewide, about 20 people per 1,000 filed for unemployment in March.

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In all, about 10 million people have lost their jobs across the country since the coronavirus outbreak began here. And economists expect more losses to come — envisioning as many as 20 million lost jobs by the end of April.

The unemployment rate, which is reported on a monthly basis, could spike to as high as 15% nationally in March, above the previous record of 10.8% set during a deep recession in 1982.

Baltimore Sun reporters Colin Campbell and Phil Davis and The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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