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Maryland unemployment system update leads to confusion, hiccups; labor department resolves some issues within hours

An updated online system designed to replace the Maryland Department of Labor’s previous unemployment insurance portal caused widespread confusion and frustration among claimants who said they could not file claims upon its launch Sunday.

BEACON 2.0, a new iteration of the BEACON portal — which has handled an unprecedented surge in requests due to the coronavirus pandemic’s devastating effects on the economy — integrates all benefits, appeals, tax, and reemployment functions, making the site a “one-stop shop” for people to file requests for benefits, check the status of those claims and apply for new jobs, according to an email sent to past and present claimants from the labor department on Sept 10. It replaces a system that dates back several decades and has been five years in the making, according to the email.

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But several claimants said the update to the portal resulted in technical glitches that have prevented them from filing this week’s claim — a potentially disastrous hindrance that could leave some people without any income until the problem gets resolved.

“It’s screwing me over,” said Michelle Hammack, an Anne Arundel County resident who has been filing claims since April without many hiccups. “I’m concerned; it said I had no weeks to file, so my only option is to get up at the crack of dawn tomorrow and try to get someone on the phone, and I’ve never gotten anyone on the phone before.”

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It was not immediately clear how widespread Sunday’s problems were, but Facebook groups that cater to Maryland unemployment claimants had amassed hundreds of comments on posts related to the update. Many appeared to have their problems resolved by midafternoon Sunday, including Hammack, who said she was finally able to file through the web portal shortly after 6 p.m.

Clogged phone lines, unanswered emails and website crashes have caused extensive distress among claimants over the last several months. Officials have blamed the surge of requests and an outdated system as responsible for the delays in receiving benefits, though those explanations do little to appease those living through states of panic related to their financial health.

“[The labor department] has people’s livelihoods in the palm of their hands and with one little stroke of the finger they’ll be homeless on the streets,” said Vanessa Pena, of Parkville, who has been applying for unemployment benefits since the pandemic reached Maryland in March. On Sunday, she waited several hours before the new site gave her the option of applying for benefits.

“It’s been problem after problem,” Pena said. “Why upgrade a system in the middle of a pandemic, if it’s just going to create more issues and problems for people that they do not need?”

On Thursday, Maryland Labor Secretary Tiffany Robinson told lawmakers that staff and vendors were going to test the updated version of the new online unemployment system this weekend before it went live to claimants. She said the department would hold off on launching if anything seemed amiss.

Fallon Pearre, a labor department spokeswoman, said some claimants were temporarily unable to file a weekly claim certification in their portal on Sunday, but the software vendor quickly resolved the problem, and all claimants can now request their unemployment insurance benefit payment.

As of 3 p.m. on Sunday, over 112,000 claimants had already successfully filed their weekly claim certifications, Pearre added.

Kenny Brannon, an Edmonson Village resident who manages the “Maryland Unemployment ( original ) Q and A 2020” Facebook group, said he fielded dozens of questions for some of the 6,800 members of the group since BEACON 2.0 launched on Sunday night. It comes after a period of relative quiet among group members, he said.

“It’s not even been 24 hours and already people are going nuts,” he said. “Some people are parents, and they have kids' diapers to buy and they need to eat. They’re expecting it by Tuesday.”

Brannon said he has spoken to people who have been unable to file claims as well as people who have been told they owe money back to the labor department that they previously claimed. Others have had their accounts go from “active” to “inactive” since yesterday.

For now, Brannon has disabled group members to post new threads in the group to limit the number of complaints related to the system update. He said he hopes to turn that function back on by tomorrow.

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