The Facebook group is part therapy, part primal scream, illustrated by screenshots showing hundreds of calls to the Maryland Unemployment Insurance office and emoji — often, the ones for “loudly crying” or “on fire."
“I am in tears over this. I am about to give up,” one poster despaired.
“I been trying to get my money for three weeks," wrote another. "What is going on with this system?”
With hundreds of thousands of Marylanders out of work because the coronavirus has shut down or slowed businesses, navigating the system to get unemployment benefits has become a full-time if unpaid job.
Phone lines to the state Department of Labor division that handles unemployment benefits have been jammed, and many complain of long waits to get claims approved and money to replace lost income. A new online portal designed to streamline the process crashed when it opened Friday from the sheer volume of users.
Some have turned to a new Facebook group, Maryland Unemployment DIY — REAL ANSWERS, that has attracted more than 1,300 members who air their grievances, share tips on getting through on the phone and celebrate making it successfully through the process.
Others, though, remain empty-handed more than a month after they were laid off. Also at a loss are those who are self-employed or work in the “gig” economy rather than the kind of conventional workplace on which the unemployment insurance system is based.
Republican Gov. Larry Hogan’s administration says it’s working to fix things. On Friday, state officials debuted a “one-stop unemployment insurance application” that they say will help ease current problems — including for those who are newly eligible for unemployment assistance under federal law, such as the self-employed and gig workers.
The new portal also is designed to let people previously required to file by phone — such as federal employees, military members and people who have worked in multiple states — apply online.
But the new site was off to a rocky start Friday. A message on the agency’s website said the vendor that created the portal was “experiencing temporary issues with the system due to the volume of claimants accessing the site simultaneously.”
Hogan said he was “very frustrated the vendor didn’t have it ready for the volume” of users, and acknowledged that some problems remained even later in the day. The state Department of Labor’s Facebook page was inundated with posters who claimed they couldn’t access the site on its first day of operation.
Hogan said 35,000 people logged on to the new portal, called Beacon One-Stop, and 15,000 claims were processed. He promised to hold the vendor’s “feet to the fire to make sure they get all the glitches worked out."
Maryland labor officials say they also are doubling staff at claims centers. This includes bringing in 200 workers through a vendor, hiring 100 new employees and transferring 150 state workers from other departments. They’ve also expanded hours and added computer servers.
State Budget Secretary David Brinkley said transferred workers include some from personnel and central collections offices.
“We are finding an awful lot of creativity in repurposing people,” Brinkley said Wednesday during a meeting of the state’s Board of Public Works.
The new online system will let all Marylanders apply online, said Fallon Pearre, a spokeswoman for the state labor department. She said it will “tremendously help” that people who previously had to file by phone will now be able to do it online.
Frustrated applicants in some cases have taken their complaints to elected officials. Members of Maryland’s congressional delegation discussed the issue this week with state Labor Secretary Tiffany Robinson. The representatives said they want to make sure the state has enough resources to handle the unprecedented demand.
"As COVID-19 wreaks havoc on the livelihoods of thousands, ensuring Marylanders can access badly needed unemployment assistance must be a top priority,” Sen. Chris Van Hollen, a Democrat, said in a statement after the call.
The problems stem from sheer volume, with an unprecedented number of people thrust out of work at the same time. From March 15 through April 18, more than 344,000 people filed for unemployment in Maryland, far more than the 215,000 all of last year.
The speed at which jobs have disappeared is extraordinary.
“This has been dramatic and quick,” said economist Daraius Irani of the Regional Economic Studies Institute at Towson University.
By contrast, job losses were more gradual during the Great Recession of 2008, he said, making the current statistics “so jarring to see."
He expects an economic boost once unemployment funds start reaching more people, particularly the extra $600 a week through July that is included in the federal aid package.
“People won’t cut back their consumption as they would have to if they didn’t have that $600,” Irani said.
'The phone just rings busy’
For now, many remain unable to complete unemployment applications or get through by phone or email to a human being that might help them.
“When you work through the form, you have to give past and present employers," said James Thomas, a Bowie-based attorney who has been idled by the courthouses shutting down.
With no option to answer “self,” you can’t finish filing, Thomas said. “You have to call, and the phone just rings busy."
While a new application will allow for the self-employed to file online, Thomas said he is also exploring whether he qualifies for the federal Paycheck Protection Program of forgivable loans for small businesses.
Some applicants say they have filled out unemployment forms, only to be told they will need to be interviewed by phone. But, they say, they aren’t given a time when someone will call.
Vanessa Peña, 40, said her doctor told her to self-quarantine when the coronavirus began spreading because her diabetes, asthma and a compromised immune system make her more vulnerable should she become infected.
The Parkville resident, a shift supervisor at a McDonald’s, said she stayed up all night to fill out the online form for unemployment March 30. She said she’s been told she needs to be interviewed by phone about her reason for not working, even though she said her doctor had already submitted that information.
Her fiance has kept his job, and she was able to qualify for food stamps, but the lack of income and the uncertainty have been upsetting.
“To just sit at home, waiting on unemployment is constantly stressing,” she said. “I have panic attacks every day.”
“To just sit at home, waiting on unemployment is constantly stressing. I have panic attacks every day.”— Vanessa Peña, 40, of Parkville
Unemployment offices throughout the country are overwhelmed, said Michele Evermore, a senior policy analyst with the National Employment Law Project, which advocates for low-wage workers and the unemployed. Administrative funding for the unemployment system is based on last year’s historically low unemployment levels, she said.
“Systems are crashing all over the place,” Evermore said. “They just didn’t have the staff in place or the computers up and running. ... Many states are operating on an antiquated computer system."
The new federal aid package meant states had to reprogram old computer systems, she said, adding that Maryland was among the first to begin offering the new $600 weekly extra benefit.
Weeks later, no answers
Restaurant, hospitality and retail workers have been hit the hardest by the closures. Some laid-off employees worry that even when the crisis passes, some bars and restaurants won’t reopen and there will be even greater competition for work.
David Williamson, a cook at JB Smokehouse in Bel Air, was laid off in March after the governor ordered bars and eateries to close except for takeout and delivery. The restaurant offered carryout for a couple of weeks before deciding to close down March 30, according to its Facebook page.
Williamson said he filed for unemployment March 21. After not hearing back he tried calling only to be put on hold for three hours. He said he was told he needed to be interviewed because of a problem with his application.
“I’ve gone five weeks without any kind of income,” he said.
Williamson, 34, said at least he doesn’t owe rent — he moved back home several years ago to help his father take care of his ailing mother.
Still, he said, he can’t believe it’s taking this long. Used to playing in a soccer league, he now offers to mow neighbors’ lawns, just to burn off some energy as he waits word on his claim.
“It makes you wonder how broken the unemployment system is," Williamson said, “how ancient the technology is.”
He is among those who have posted on the Maryland Unemployment DIY Facebook group, a running litany by people in a similar boat. Many say they simply can’t get through on the phone. Either the call rings endlessly or, if it’s answered, hold times can stretch for hours. Or you get disconnected.
Out of work and abiding by stay-at-home orders, many have the time to keep dialing or emailing, which adds to the volume. “Please don’t send multiple emails," said an email from the labor department that one poster shared. “It will make the response time take even longer.”
The group was started by Stephanie Adams, who lives in Prince George’s County, after the restaurant at National Harbor where she was an events and sales manager closed, coincidentally around the time the coronavirus outbreak was shuttering other businesses. She found herself thrust into a huge crowd of newly unemployed, all trying to file at the same time and experiencing the same difficulties.
“People were searching for answers,” Adams said. “They cannot get through on the phone lines.”
She tries to keep the tone on the page positive and helpful, even as people vent their frustrations. Posters have sent their thanks, grateful for a virtual community at a time when they can’t seem to get through to a human being.
“I just don’t want anybody to be alone,” Adams said.
‘It’s just a black hole’
Bethesda resident Mindy Hicks, 68, lost her job as a restaurant server in mid-March along with many in the industry. She applied for unemployment the next week, and says she received several letters detailing what her payments would be.
But she has yet to receive the benefits, more than a month after losing her job, nor has she been able to reach anyone by phone or email.
“It’s just a black hole,” she said.
Now emailing the unemployment office is part of her routine, in addition to watching New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s daily coronavirus news briefings.
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“They need an additional army” to help process claims, she said. “I do understand what they’re up against, but at the same time they need to get more people involved in this.”
Thomas, the Bowie attorney, said the crisis has grown beyond the service industry and into other sectors.
“It’s broken up the stream of commerce for everyone,” he said.
Thomas said his practice will survive, but he worries about those who live paycheck to paycheck and didn’t make enough to accumulate savings to carry them through a crisis like this.
“There are a lot of people who live on the margins,” he said, “and those are the people I’m concerned about.
“They’re getting hammered by this,” he said. “They’re going to bear the brunt of this.”
Baltimore Sun reporters Pamela Wood and Scott Dance contributed to this article.