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Marylanders still waiting for extra jobless aid should get priority for new benefits, Van Hollen says

U.S. Sen. Chris Van Hollen says frustrated Marylanders who have waited months to receive $600 in now-expired extra unemployment benefits should get priority for the new $300 in additional jobless aid expected later this month. Van Hollen is shown May 5, 2020, at the U.S. Capitol in Washington.
U.S. Sen. Chris Van Hollen says frustrated Marylanders who have waited months to receive $600 in now-expired extra unemployment benefits should get priority for the new $300 in additional jobless aid expected later this month. Van Hollen is shown May 5, 2020, at the U.S. Capitol in Washington. (Kim Hairston/Baltimore Sun)

Frustrated Marylanders who have waited months to receive $600 in now-expired extra unemployment benefits should get priority for the new $300 in additional jobless aid expected later this month, U.S. Sen. Chris Van Hollen told the state on Thursday.

“We continue to hear — on a daily basis — from constituents who are unable to put food on the table and are facing eviction due to a job loss caused by the (coronavirus) pandemic and delays in receiving unemployment benefits,” the Maryland Democrat said in a letter to Tiffany Robinson, secretary of the state’s Department of Labor. “Many of them have spent hundreds of hours on hold waiting for an MDOL representative to assist them but remain unable to have their case resolved.”

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The letter, also signed by the seven Democratic Maryland members of the U.S. House, urged Robinson to prioritize relief to Marylanders who have been waiting months for benefits.

Asked for a response, the Labor Department said it has processed more than 96% of unemployment applications and that it prioritizes finding solutions for the earliest-filed claims.

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“After we uncovered a massive fraud scheme in July, it is even more critical for us to manually review each claim for any issues, and we certainly hope the senator supports our careful approach,” department spokeswoman Fallon Pearre said in an email. “Our team continues to work around the clock to reprogram our systems to begin paying the additional $300 per week” in the coming weeks, she said.

The state said in July that it had uncovered a “massive identity theft” scheme leading to more than 47,500 fraudulent unemployment insurance claims totaling more than $501 million. Republican Gov. Larry Hogan said the state quickly notified federal authorities when it learned about the scheme, and put holds on paying out-of-state claims, which had been surging.

In March, Congress approved an extra $600 a week in unemployment benefits in the CARES Act, a federal coronavirus relief program.

That benefit expired at the end of July. Without that added safety net, people thrown out of work in Maryland and elsewhere faced new uncertainties over how to pay for food, housing, utilities and other necessities.

When Congress could not agree to renew the $600, Republican President Donald Trump established a replacement supplement under which $300 is expected to be available for some unemployed Marylanders later this month.

Maryland is one of about 40 states to date whose applications have been approved to receive those grants, which are administered by the Federal Emergency Management Administration.

Without extra benefits, Marylanders’ unemployment benefits generally amount to about half their gross weekly pay, up to a maximum of $430.

Since the pandemic hit Maryland in mid-March, hundreds of thousands of residents have filed for unemployment. While many received their benefits, some have complained about difficulty using the state’s system and others were at least temporarily frozen out of benefits by the investigation into fraudulent filings.

The others signing the letter were congressmen Kweisi Mfume, C.A. “Dutch” Ruppersberger, John Sarbanes, David Trone, Jamie Raskin, Anthony Brown and Steny Hoyer, who is the House majority leader.

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