Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan announced May 6 that the state’s new Beacon One-Stop unemployment benefits website was no longer crashing as it had in its early days, saying it was accessible without issues and wait times had been eliminated. .
“The unemployment site has been completely fixed for at least 10 days,” the Republican governor said during a news conference, referring to users no longer needing to queue up to access the site.
But more than a month after it launched, other issues with the website and other problems with the state’s unemployment system have left thousands of frustrated Marylanders looking for answers — and the payments desperately needed to pay the rent or put food on the table.
More than 700,000 jobless claims have been filed in Maryland since the pandemic began, with over 43,000 added last week. That’s more than one in every five residents employed in February.
Those seeking help describe an endless carousel of waking up early to start calling only to get blasted with busy signals or stuck on hold for hours. Some call repeatedly trying to get through without success. If they do get through, the voice on automated response system is more likely to tell them all lines are full before hanging up than asking how they can be assisted.
And even if they successfully sign up for benefits, they might wait weeks for a debit card loaded with their benefits to arrive.
Asked for comment, a Hogan spokesperson referred questions to the Department of Labor, which shared two letters state Labor Secretary Tiffany Robinson wrote to members of the Maryland General Assembly in recent weeks.
In the letters, Robinson said the department is “resolving thousands of issues every day.” The state is trying to hire 100 more workers — who normally require three to six months of training, she wrote — and increase the number of phone lines in its interactive voice response system to 540. It has contracted with an outside vendor to add 275 agents and Sunday hours, Robinson wrote.
“Our entire Department is working around the clock to ensure that all claimants receive the unemployment benefits they are entitled to as quickly as possible,” Robinson wrote to legislators on May 22.
The stories of several Marylanders’ efforts to navigate the state’s unemployment system, often in vain, follow.
Grayson Moon, a 26-year-old freelance musician who lives in Butcher’s Hill, saw his gigs dry up as the coronavirus spread. He wasn’t eligible for unemployment benefits until the passage of the coronavirus relief bill and the advent of pandemic unemployment assistance. That program lets self-employed and contract workers and freelancers qualify for benefits.
While Moon was applying on the Beacon site, it crashed. Unable to sign back in, he tried for a week without luck to use the site during low-traffic times early in the morning and late at night.
“I understand there was a rush to get this out,” Moon said. “But it didn’t really do anything to put up a website that wasn’t finished.”
He figured a phone call might be easier, but because all his income was recorded with 1099s rather than W-2s, agents told him he had to use the site to apply (Robinson wrote that all agents are “now fully equipped to assist all claimants on all issues”). Without assistance, Moon emailed various Department of Labor and state officials.
A representative from the office of Del. Sid Saab, a Crownsville Republican, emailed him back, ending the message by suggesting the situation could give Moon "some songwriting material.”
“I didn’t want to email back to these people that I was asking for help, ‘Well, it’ll be kind of hard if I can’t eat,’” Moon said.
‘I can’t take this anymore’
When the pandemic closed schools, the family Wendy Stelzer nannied for no longer needed her. Now, after losing the house she shared with her mother before her death, she doesn’t have a home of her own.
Stelzer, 49, of Bowie, is using her credit card to pay for a hotel room, hoping her unemployment benefit situation is resolved before the card reaches its limit. She waited until Beacon was live to file for pandemic unemployment assistance, but after a few days, the system wasn’t updating to allow her to apply for it. She began calling in, from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily, the wail of busy tones prompting call after call after call.
When she got through, she found herself on hold, listening to the endless repeat of hold music.
“I hear the music in my sleep, and I still have no resolution,” Stelzer said. “All day, two phones on hold, and my foot on my tablet trying to redial.”
At some point, Stelzer said, her Social Security number became transposed in the system. In the thousands of times she’s called, she has spoken to agents three times, all of whom offered to “escalate” her request but could do nothing more.
“What do you do when you can’t do anything else?" Stelzer said. "I know I can’t take this anymore, but I can’t give up either.”
‘Playing some sort of game’
When Antietam Urosurgical Center in Hagerstown decided to furlough 24 staffers, Erin Phillips, a registered nurse, asked to be among them. Her two sons, 11- and 12-years old, would be at their Frederick home with schools closed, and the pandemic already had cut her hours to 10 a week, at most.
Phillips, 34, first applied April 5 for unemployment. Soon after, she got a notice telling her how much she would get each week, but the debit card to use the funds never came, though the cards are supposed to arrive from Bank of America within seven to 10 days. She called the bank and learned she wasn’t even in its system.
Hundreds of calls led to little. One agent told her he was unable to help and transferred her to someone else. After Phillips spent two hours on hold, the call dropped.
“The whole experience makes me feel like the Department of Labor is playing some sort of game,” Phillips said, “hoping they can discourage us enough that we’ll give up.”
Some but not all
Leanne Windsor, 23 of Federal Hill, already had an unemployment debit card from a prior claim when she was let go on her third day at Diablo Doughnuts. Knowing she didn’t earn enough to qualify for regular unemployment, she waited more than a month for Beacon’s launch before applying for pandemic unemployment assistance.
She was able to file claims for all of the weeks since her last day of work in mid-March. But when she tried filing for the following week, it didn’t offer her the option, despite her account saying she was eligible. Her payments never arrived, either.
After weeks of calling, Windsor spoke to an agent who said her account was, for some reason, locked. The agent was able to unlock only the payments from the three most recent weeks, adding that Windsor would have to speak with someone else to unlock the other seven and receive all the money she was owed. The call dropped while she was on hold during the transfer.
With her lease up at the end of May, Windsor started looking for Airbnbs to stay in while she waits for the rest of her payments.
“Some weeks are better than no weeks at all,” she said.
Dream job lost
Alexis Figueroa, 29 of Nottingham, had just started what she considered a dream job. Figueroa believed her position as an account executive at ClearOne Advantage would not only help her support her 6-year-old son, Elijah, but also allow her to pay off the 2010 Lexus she got at Christmastime.
The pandemic cost her that job. Figueroa fought to get her car payment deferred, but she had to send Elijah to Virginia to live with her father.
Figueroa said her lack of unemployment payments stems from putting that she was fired, rather than laid off, on her initial application. She began calling any claims center number she could find, thousands of times a day, she said, before eventually sending an email to Robinson, Dayne Freeman, the assistant secretary for the Division of Unemployment Insurance, and others.
Within 15 minutes, Figueroa said, someone emailed her that the issue was resolved. After weeks of waiting, she expects her debit card and payments in the near future. She hopes to bring her son home soon.
“It’s a terrible system,” she said. “It should be a lot easier.”
Out of control
Since her first unemployment payment in March, massage therapist Pamela Lee has received nothing in the eight weeks since.
After her benefits started, Lee was paid $18 for training that happened before the pandemic, which she said negated additional assistance. Since April 10, Lee, a 65-year-old resident of College Park, has been waiting for an interview with the Department of Labor to discuss her situation, but she has gotten no notice of when it will happen. When Lee got through and asked an agent when the interview might be, the woman said she couldn’t help because the interview times are computer-generated.
“You literally have no control over your situation, when you’re going to get your funds,” Lee said.
Already two months behind on her health insurance payments, Lee believes she’ll be waiting at least another month before she gets her phone interview. She skips her blood pressure medication every day or two, hoping to make it last so she won’t need to buy more.
“It’s like there’s no light at the end of the tunnel,” Lee said. “You don’t see anything. It just seems like they don’t care.”