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‘This is a crisis’: Group demands Maryland release more unemployment benefits, resolve claims quicker

Maryland workers will gather in protest of the state’s ongoing failure to process unemployment claims filed during the COVID-19 crisis.

A group of Maryland residents and legislators rallied outside Maryland’s Department of Labor building in Baltimore on Wednesday, demanding that the state immediately release unemployment benefits to residents who have been waiting weeks to receive payment.

Led by Our Revolution Maryland, the group demanded that Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican, and the Department of Labor immediately release unemployment funding for claims that have been outstanding for four weeks or more as well as remove “procedures that cause unreasonable delays to payment.”

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“This is a crisis and we’re addressing this as if it is not a crisis,” Anne Arundel County Del. Heather Bagnall, a Democrat, said.

The group is demanding eight actions be taken to bolster support for unemployed Marylanders, including expanding access to Medicaid to aid those who’ve lost their employer-provided insurance policy.

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A list of eight demands of Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan and Labor Secretary Tiffany Robinson to address issues with the state's unemployment benefits system.
A list of eight demands of Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan and Labor Secretary Tiffany Robinson to address issues with the state's unemployment benefits system. (Phil Davis)

In addition, the group is circulating a petition calling for the General Assembly to convene a special session to override several of Hogan’s legislative vetoes, although none of them directly address the COVID-19 pandemic or monetary assistance for unemployment. It has collected 870 signatures toward its 1,600-signature goal as of Wednesday afternoon.

The demands come as the coronavirus pandemic has shuttered businesses and forced hundreds of thousands of people to file for unemployment benefits.

In Maryland, more than 500,000 people have filed for assistance since the beginning of the outbreak, and state officials say about 71,000 of those claims are either still pending or have been denied.

Chrissy Holt, a 53-year-old Anne Arundel resident who works in training and development and is one of the organizers with Our Revolution Maryland, was placed on furlough April 19 and said neither she nor her unemployed husband has received any payment.

She said hers is one of the more fortunate stories because she has decent savings to fall back on to help cover immediate living costs.

However, she said, if the current conditions persist for much longer, it could mean her two sons, who are juniors at Westminster College and Johns Hopkins University, won’t have the money to get their degrees.

She was also adamant about Maryland expanding access to health care during the pandemic, saying officials have pushed unemployed workers to purchase health insurance through the Maryland Health Connection.

She said it is a “crime against humanity” to not expand free access to health care during a pandemic.

“If you don’t have an unemployment check, and you can’t pay your rent and mortgage and you can’t feed your kids, you are not going to pay for insurance,” Holt said.

And while the Hogan administration says it has worked to address many of the problems, Marylanders say they’re still dealing with an obtuse filing system that often leaves them with more questions than answers.

Sheila Fleet, who was laid off by Walsh Construction in March, said she became “stuck in Beacon hell” when she tried to file for unemployment.

The 49-year-old Waldorf resident told The Sun that agents had trouble finding her W-2 paperwork, even though she included it with her claim, and that several emails only led to generic responses directing her to the Beacon One-Stop online portal.

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Labor Department spokeswoman Fallon Pearre wrote in an email that the state is still tied to federal guidelines for determining who is eligible for unemployment benefits.

“Maryland was one of the first states in the country to pay unemployment benefits for all three CARES Act programs,” Pearre wrote of the federal government’s $2.2 trillion coronavirus relief package. “Because we acted early, we have paid out well over $2 billion in benefits to hundreds of thousands of Marylanders.

“However, the U.S. Department of Labor continues to reiterate that we must verify the eligibility of all claimants to maintain program integrity.”

Bagnall, who sits on the House of Delegates’ Health and Government Operations Committee, pushed back against that notion at the protest Wednesday.

Bagnall said that when delegates began discussing adjourning the session early in February among COVID-19-related concerns, part of the decision to do so was that “the governor had the fiscal authority to take care of our Marylanders.”

“And in good faith, we adjourned early, knowing that the governor had that fiscal authority,” she said. “So we made a promise to Marylanders. We asked them to stay home.

“And then, we didn’t make good on that promise.”

Holt said she feels as though there’s a disassociation between people’s claims and their pain, saying that the state “purged people from the system” as it has denied applications for benefits.

“They should pay it and ask questions later,” Holt said.

Baltimore Sun reporter Nathan Ruiz contributed to this article.

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