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Tens of thousands of Maryland unemployment claims are stuck in the system, state labor officials say

Nearly 71,000 Maryland residents who have filed unemployment claims during the coronavirus pandemic have been blocked from receiving payments, state labor officials said Thursday.

Those claims, which the state says are pending because of unresolved issues, make up just over 13% of all claims filed from March 9 to June 6 as layoffs and furloughs mounted amid business closures.

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More than 500,000 Marylanders — or roughly one in six people working in the state — have filed for unemployment benefits since the coronavirus arrived, including 53,000 more people who sought the help last week. That’s 10,000 more than the week before. The state launched its new Beacon One-Stop portal to make the process easier, but many residents remain frustrated by a lack of payments and inability to get account updates.

State officials have acknowledged shortfalls in Maryland’s system but have defended it as one of the most successful in the country in handling the overwhelming demand during the health crisis and incorporating new federal programs created to address it.

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The labor department’s division of unemployment insurance paid out more than $2.2 billion in regular and CARES Act unemployment benefits from March 9 to June 6, officials said Thursday.

“We have paid hundreds of thousands of people $2.2 billion and we’ve tried to address all of the problems at the state level,” Gov. Larry Hogan said during a news conference Wednesday after being asked about people’s complaints about waiting since March for claims to be processed.

The Republican governor said he believes Maryland is one of only three states able to establish a website capable of handling the three new federal unemployment programs added since March.

Earlier this week, however, the state’s congressional delegation demanded the state fix its system. In a letter to Hogan, U.S. Sens. Ben Cardin and Chris Van Hollen said they hear daily from constituents who continue to encounter problems. U.S. Reps. Steny Hoyer, C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, John Sarbanes, Kweisi Mfume, Andy Harris, Anthony Brown, Jamie Raskin and David Trone also signed the letter, saying that problems include errors processing weekly certifications, performance issues with the benefits website and inaccurate denials of benefits.

The governor acknowledged during Wednesday’s news conference that long waits are “probably the most frustrating thing for folks that are desperate to get that answer. And there’s no simple answers to that question, other than I know that they cleared half of that backlog in the past week.”

Of the remaining 13 percent of claims that either have not been paid or denied, "we’re trying to adjudicate,” Hogan said. “Many of them may not qualify.”

On Thursday, labor officials said the 70,804 claims that are “pending adjudication" have “one or more issues that are blocking claimants from receiving payment. ... We continue to make progress on ensuring every Marylander receives the benefits they are eligible for under federal law.”

Fallon Pearre, a state labor department spokeswoman, did not respond to questions about how long the state expects it will take to work through the backlog of 71,000 cases needing adjudication or how many people the state has working on it.

The state said it has cut its claims backlog by nearly half since the week ending May 23. But a change in its technology should allow officials to more quickly process more than 78 percent of regular unemployment claims that are pending.

“In order to provide eligible Marylanders with their benefits as soon as possible, these pending claimants’ regular unemployment insurance claims will be denied, so they can apply for and receive benefits under the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) program,” Pearre said.

Redirecting people to the PUA program should allow for faster processing times.

The department sent emails Thursday to all affected claimants, she said.

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That change brought some relief to Bobby Draino, an East Baltimore resident who couldn’t work as a Lyft driver because of health risks. He has been waiting for payments for more than two months, all while falling behind on car payments, rent and utility bills. An update to his account Thursday came as welcome news.

“Today my application is ‘live’ and I should receive something hopefully next week,” he said.

State labor officials said remaining pending claims with multiple problems will continue to be resolved by employees.

Pearre said that issues that can require additional review include failing to include sufficient documentation, disagreements between the employer and claimant about how the job ended, and wage discrepancies.

“Every individual’s claim can be very different, so some claims may take longer to process than others for numerous reasons,” she said. “All of these situations, and more, require manual review and adjudication before a claimant can be found eligible or ineligible for benefits, which can add to the complexity and timeline of a case.”

The labor department said 528,919 claims were filed from March 9 to June 6 and more than 86% of those claims were processed. Of 458,115 processed claims, 361,578, or more than 68%, received benefit payments and 96,537, or more than 18%, were denied benefits for failing to meet federal and state requirements.

Most of those denied had problems related to how they lost their job with their most recent employer or were determined to be monetarily ineligible. They have the right to appeal.

Maryland was one of the first states to pay out benefits under new and existing federal programs, state officials said. That includes $1.6 billion in regular benefits, $633 million under the PUA program, for those who are self-employed, independent contractors or gig workers, and $28.7 million in Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation, which offers 13 additional weeks of benefits.

Baltimore Sun reporters Nathan Ruiz and McKenna Oxenden contributed to this article.

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