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Nearly one in five Maryland workers have filed for unemployment as gig workers join flood of claims

Nearly one in five working Marylanders have filed for unemployment benefits since the beginning of March, when the coronavirus arrived in the state.

The state’s Department of Labor reported that nearly 110,000 residents filed claims for unemployment assistance last week after the state opened the process to independent contractors and gig workers in late April.

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This week’s surge in claims brings to nearly half a million the number of Marylanders who have filed for unemployment benefits since the beginning of March, when the coronavirus arrived in the state. The state’s workforce was nearly 2.8 million in February.

“We were expecting to see this bump,” as more people became eligible to apply, said Alex Marre, an economist with the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond. “We’re expecting to see these staggering unemployment insurance claim numbers continue both in Maryland and nationally. ... It’s so critical to get this money into people’s hands."

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But some Marylanders still report difficulties filing claims with the state, despite efforts to fix problems and accommodate the surge. Two days after state officials announced improvements to make the online portal faster and shorten wait times, applicants remain frustrated and angry about delayed checks, notices of nonpayment, confusing application questions and a lack of responses to questions.

Yhadra Oviedo Sotomayor, a 33-year-old manager in a Rockville law firm who was furloughed early last month, has received no benefits since April 18. A claim filed with the state’s new Beacon One-Stop application was not paid, and she has tried unsuccessfully for nearly a week to reapply and reach someone about her claim.

“I logged on 20 times today, and there are no options to file a weekly certification," Ovido Sotomayor, a mother of two, said Thursday. “It’s not working, and it’s not just me. ... Whatever money I have saved up is eventually going to run out, and then what am I going to do?”

The 109,623 new filings for assistance in the week ended May 2 is nearly three times the number of claims from the week before. It also eclipses the previous record of 108,508 claims filed the week ending April 4.

The state has been inundated with tens of thousands of unemployment claims per week as the coronavirus pandemic has forced businesses to close or shut down completely as Marylanders practice social distancing measures to stem the spread of the disease.

Last week’s increase is largely due to the 44,280 claims for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, an expanded unemployment insurance program offered through the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security, or CARES, Act.

On April 24, workers who were self-employed, were independent contractors, were gig workers or had insufficient work history were allowed to apply online for the assistance program. The past week marks the first full week the aid was made available to those workers.

Many of Gregory O. Marsalek’s clients fall into that category, but none of about a dozen the accountant has been working with have received an unemployment payment yet. Wait times to apply may have been eliminated, but checks appear to be delayed, he said.

“There are some people out there that are absolutely desperate,” said Marsalek, based in White Marsh. “People were relying on this unemployment.”

Some problems likely stem from merging the former application system with a new one that has added new categories of workers, such as contractors and the self-employed, Marsalek believes.

“If you have a problem, you can’t get through on the phone and can’t talk to anyone, and emails are never returned,” he said.

Some of his clients have had problems filing for unemployment as subcontractors or self-employed. A father and son who are self-employed found their application misclassified and were informed they don’t qualify for regular unemployment benefits. Marsalek has been unable to help them get their applications filed correctly under the Pandemic Unemployment category so they can receive payments.

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“If it happened to these two people, I’m sure there’s a lot of other people out there who’ve been misclassified,” he said. “The people filling out these applications have no idea what they’re looking at because this is a whole new language.”

Randy Steinfelder, who was laid off as a server at a Bethesda restaurant in mid-March, said his unemployment account is listed as active but he has not been issued an unemployment card. He has been unable to reach anyone by phone or email.

“Almost 8 weeks unemployed and have yet to receive my benefit card,” he said in an email. “It’s causing a lot of stress and even more anxiety not knowing if I’ll be able to pay rent or buy cat food next week. My landlady is being more than generous by waiting but I need answers.

“I just can’t keep asking my friends for money.”

The state Department of Labor did not respond Thursday to a request for comment about people’s continued problems with claims.

Asked at a news conference Wednesday about the site, Gov. Larry Hogan said technical problems have been fixed and wait times eliminated.

“But it’s frustrating still for the people who haven’t gotten their checks,” said Hogan, adding that each new set of guidelines and rules from the federal government has required website changes. It is "very difficult to get hundreds of thousands of people money in a brand-new program when the rules keep changing and the money isn’t flowing very well.”

In the week ended May 2, 62,076 Marylanders filed for regular unemployment insurance and 2,907 filed for Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation, an aid program that extends benefits by 13 weeks and offers them an extra $600 a week.

The distribution of claims largely correlates with the state’s population as the state’s three most populous counties — Montgomery, Prince George’s and Baltimore — were the three biggest for unemployment insurance and Pandemic Unemployment Assistance claims.

Maryland now pays $170 million a week in unemployment benefits, state Labor Secretary Tiffany P. Robinson said during a legislative coronavirus task force call Wednesday. That’s 24 times more than the average of about $7 million the state paid each week before the coronavirus outbreak, she said.

Robinson had said Tuesday that the labor department is working to alleviate confusion that has come up regarding changes to unemployment benefits under the federal CARES Act.

States are now required to capture additional information from applicants as they complete their weekly claim, she said. But guidance from federal officials has been piecemeal, she added. She had said confusion led to claimants inactivating their eligibility for unemployment benefits, but that the state has added a process by which such claims will be automatically reactivated to prevent benefit payments from being interrupted.

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Nationally, nearly 3.2 million laid-off workers applied for unemployment benefits last week as the business shutdowns caused by the viral outbreak deepened the worst U.S. economic catastrophe since the Great Depression.

Roughly 33.5 million people have filed for jobless aid in the seven weeks since the coronavirus began forcing millions of companies to close their doors and slash their workforces. That is the equivalent of one in five Americans who had been employed back in February, when the unemployment rate had reached a 50-year low of just 3.5%.

The Labor Department’s report Thursday suggests that layoffs, while still breathtakingly high, are declining steadily after sharp spikes in late March and early April. Initial claims for unemployment aid have now fallen for five straight weeks, from a peak of nearly 6.9 million during the week that ended March 28.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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