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Maryland unemployment claims surge again, surpassing total for all of 2019

In a third straight week of record-setting job losses, another 108,508 Marylanders filed for unemployment, meaning the state’s total number of jobless claims since the coronavirus pandemic reached the state in early March has surpassed its total for all of 2019.

In all, more than 234,000 people filed for unemployment in Maryland from March 15 through April 3, more than the roughly 215,000 jobless claims the state said it received in all of 2019 — and the 232,000 in 2018.

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That works out to a loss of about one in every 13 jobs that existed in the state in February, compared with more than one in 10 nationwide.

In all, 16.8 million Americans are out of work now because the social distancing orders needed to slow the spread of the coronavirus have paralyzed much of the economy. Many stores, restaurants and even barber shops and salons are closed.

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The three weeks of jobs losses are more than the most recent recession caused in two years, both in Maryland and nationwide.

The accelerating unemployment crisis is overwhelming the safety net in Maryland and elsewhere, with reports of frustrating dropped calls or waits on hold when residents try to file for unemployment by phone, and slow service in an online filing system.

Union representatives for unemployment insurance division staff blamed much of that dysfunction on state leaders.

Jason Suggs, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees local that represents about 50 Maryland unemployment system employees, said Thursday he has seen staff at the state’s unemployment claim call centers fall to one-third of its size during the last surge of joblessness amid the financial crisis a dozen years ago.

“They were nowhere near prepared to take on something like this happening,” said Suggs, who works at an unemployment claims center in College Park. “The gutting of staff in an effort to save money has really left the state at a deficit.”

The union is calling for the next round of federal stimulus spending to address the COVID-19 pandemic to include money to help hire and train more staff to process unemployment claims.

Maryland Department of Labor spokeswoman Fallon Pearre said more than 94% of claims are being processed “smoothly” online, and that a team of 180 claim takers, adjudicators and supervisors is working to ensure “this large volume of claims is being processed as fast as possible.”

“We have vastly ramped up our operation to adapt to the unprecedented increase in claims, and we will continue to make improvements,” she said.

Officials have said they are working to train additional staff to process unemployment claims as the labor department is receiving tens of thousands of calls every day.

“There’s only so many calls you can handle at the same time,” said Gov. Larry Hogan during a Thursday town hall broadcast on Fox 45 in Baltimore and WJLA in Washington.

Nearly 40 of every 1,000 Marylanders are now without work. The highest concentrations of unemployment are being reported in rural counties, including Worcester and Garrett. The largest number of unemployment claims continues to come from Baltimore County.

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Daraius Irani, chief economist at the Regional Economic Studies Institute at Towson University, estimated the losses so far may amount to a 10% unemployment rate in Maryland. But he said the economy could bounce back reasonably well in the second half of the year once social distancing measures can be lifted, so long as they effectively tamp down case counts and the country’s ability to widely test for the virus improves.

“It’s about making sure consumers feel confident that when they walk into a restaurant or a store, they’re not going to get sick,” he said.

The recovery also depends on action now to help people make ends meet and to stimulate the economy using monetary policy, Irani added. Without unemployment benefits, for example, the downturn would be significantly more trying for many Maryland families.

Middle River resident Jenn Anthony said she has made as many as 300 calls a day to ensure she will soon get unemployment benefits needed to make up for her lost income as a bartender and server. She thought she had properly filed until she learned her employer didn’t have her correct Social Security number, and while she believes it has since been cleared up, she doesn’t know for sure, or when her jobless benefits might start coming.

Her spouse is for now still working in a job that the government considers essential, and she has some savings. But she worries about providing for her two children and three stepchildren, and fears others will have an even harder time making ends meet.

“There’s literally been no money coming in on my side for a month now,” Anthony said. “People are running out of money — quick.”

Maryland and other states are still trying to put into action new policies passed under the federal CARES Act to help people who are out of work amid the coronavirus outbreak. That includes provisions for an extra $600 a week in unemployment benefits — on top of the $50 to $430 per week that Maryland provides — and to allow the self-employed to file for unemployment.

Officials said the state labor department is still working on reprogramming systems to reflect those changes. State Labor Secretary Tiffany Robinson said Wednesday that she understands the frustration, and stressed that residents would not lose any benefits they are owed because of the logjam — though they might have to wait several weeks to receive them.

“The problem is when Marylanders saw the president sign the CARES Act, they believed that those provisions were going to be available to them right then,” Robinson said on WBAL radio.

Going forward, the state said Thursday, residents would not need to call a claim center to request jobless benefits for past weeks if they already have successfully filed an initial unemployment claim. Those residents can now file online to request payments for past weeks even though deadlines to file for those weeks have passed.

Because many people filing for unemployment may have held health insurance through their jobs, the Maryland Citizens’ Health Initiative is pushing for the state to use the unemployment claims process to connect more people to a state health insurance marketplace.

Vincent DeMarco, the group’s president sent a letter to Hogan this week asking that unemployment benefit applicants be asked whether they want their contact information and social security number shared with the Maryland Health Connection to help them get free or low-cost health insurance. It would add to a pilot program that began this year creating a similar prompt on state tax return forms.

The latest national unemployment figures collectively constitute the largest and fastest string of job losses in records dating to 1948.

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By comparison, weekly jobless claims during the Great Recession peaked at about 12,000 in Maryland, before seasonal adjustment, in the week ending Jan. 10, 2009, according to federal data. The number of people with active unemployment claims reached, at most, 95,700 during that economic downturn.

The viral outbreak is believed to have erased nearly a third of the economy’s output in the current quarter. Forty-eight states have closed non-essential businesses. Restaurants, hotels, department stores and countless small businesses have laid off millions as they struggle to pay bills at a time when their revenue has vanished.

And still more job cuts are expected. Economists predict the unemployment rate could hit 15% when the April employment report is released in early May.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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