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Updated Maryland unemployment insurance portal provides little relief for some claimants

Many Marylanders who anxiously awaited the launch of BEACON 2.0, the makeover of the state’s unemployment insurance web portal that debuted Sunday, find it’s still not helping resolve their difficulties with claims.

The new site was designed to provide a “one-stop shop” for those requesting benefits from the state, but several claimants said the new portal looks and acts only marginally different from its predecessor. They said it offers no solutions to some of the same problems that have dogged the Maryland Department of Labor since the coronavirus pandemic first reached the state in March, leading to hundreds of thousands of unemployment insurance claims.

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Some Marylanders, desperate to converse with labor department representatives, remain unable to get through the phone system or have their emails returned.

Among the new features advertised for BEACON 2.0, claimants now should be able to check the status of their claims, respond to fact-finding questions, file appeals and submit documents.

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So far, some claimants said the updated site does not work as advertised.

“The message they put out was that it was going to make it easier for us to respond to fact-finding issues and have all these new features, but there are no new features that are different,” said Maira Granados, a Germantown resident who has received only one payment since mid-July. “Then, it’s also giving me an error message, so it’s disheartening to see that they didn’t do anything they said they were going to."

Granados and other Marylanders have been unable to work throughout much of the pandemic due to a shortage of available job openings and familial obligations that keep them at home. She has three children, including a newborn, and stopped going to work in March when she became aware of the risks that could be posed to pregnant women and fetuses.

The former property manager has relied heavily on the unemployment insurance benefits made available to her through the state and federal government. But when the state informed her via BEACON that her eligibility ended in July, she frantically tried to reach a representative to make a case for herself. In response, an agent via live chat messenger informed her she might have to wait up to 12 weeks for an interview.

“They don’t ever have anyone available, and I thought this was why they were updating the system — so that you can upload all your documentation for them,” she said. “But, there’s nothing there.”

Representatives from the labor department acknowledged Monday that some people still could not file claims.

“Our vendor is aware and a team of information technology professionals are investigating to ensure this is resolved as soon as possible,” said Fallon Pearre, a labor department spokeswoman, in a statement, adding that claimants now have an extra day to file weekly claims.

Pearre also said the new system already had resulted in improvements: Claimants experienced fast speeds and no wait times, and the queue system had not been activated despite the high volume of users.

“Employers and agents are successfully activating their accounts and accessing their new portals that now give them the ability to complete nearly all activities entirely online," she said. “All staff have access to BEACON 2.0 and data is being updated in real time. Despite the high volume on the website and app, users continue to experience fast speeds and no wait times.”

More than 217,000 claimants successfully filed their weekly claim certifications by 2 p.m. Monday, she said.

Still, for those who have long been unable to file claims or converse with an agent, it remains unclear what purpose the site’s update serves.

“I’ve run out of resources,” said Monet Hayes, a Catonsville resident whose doctor recommended she stop going to work because of preexisting conditions that made her more vulnerable to contracting serious illness from COVID-19.

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Hayes has not received any money since May, she said, and awaits an interview.

She said she exhausted the amount of time she could take off work from Maryland’s Family and Medical Leave Act and had to give up her position. She said she qualifies for unemployment insurance, but has not been able to apply — despite waking up at 7:30 a.m. every weekday to try placing a call.

She thought maybe relief would come with BEACON 2.0, but, so far, that hasn’t been the case.

“You were promised all these bells and whistles and none of that is there,” she said. “I do understand that this is overwhelming, but there is not more people out of work here than any other state. We should’ve had a fine-tuned system by May.”

Problems with the state’s handling of unemployment have loomed large since the first months of the coronavirus pandemic. Website glitches, clogged phone lines and a surge of demand on outdated web infrastructure caused widespread frustration and anxiety among Marylanders, who set records for the number of claims made.

In July, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan and Labor Secretary Tiffany Robinson announced at a news conference that the state had uncovered a “massive identity theft” scheme leading to more than 47,500 fraudulent unemployment insurance claims totaling more than $501 million. That exacerbated the existing problems, as some people saw their accounts wiped out and their state-issued debit cards frozen during an investigation period led by federal and state officials.

More than a month later, many were still without needed payments as they waited out the investigation.

In a statement, Yvette Lewis, chair of the Maryland Democratic Party, said Hogan should hold his administration accountable for the shortcomings in the unemployment insurance system.

“It is baffling that a few months ago he would claim the problem is ‘completely fixed,’ while people across the state can’t even get a real person on the phone; let alone the benefits they’ve earned," Lewis said. "This is deeply disappointing and deserves a real solution — not just lip service.”

Hayes said the state should have addressed some of the long-standing problems with the system before moving to update the BEACON portal, such as beefing up the labor department with more employees to answer phone calls and providing more assistance to people like her who have to choose between going to work and potentially compromising their immune systems.

“It’s scary when you can’t reach anyone,” she said. “To consistently say it’s running smoothly is wrong. People are just trying to speak to someone.”

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