A record-shattering surge of more than 334,000 Marylanders are among more than 26 million Americans who have filed for unemployment since mid-March — so many that the claims are overloading the system.
State labor officials said the surge in applications for unemployment benefits has created a backlog to access a federal database used to verify Social Security numbers. And it is taxing a website and phone lines used to accept unemployment claims. A new online portal meant to ease widespread frustrations of workers trying to apply for unemployment benefits made a glitchy debut Friday.
Maryland’s 400 workers who process unemployment claims typically handle about 2,000 claims per week, but have been working extra hours and on Saturdays to help process the surge in applications, state Labor Secretary Tiffany Robinson said. But the department has recently been receiving tens of thousands of calls a day from people with applications for or questions about unemployment benefits.
Dayne Freeman, assistant labor secretary for unemployment insurance, said the state is working to make the unemployment claims process easier for workers affected by mass layoffs, and to help companies keep their unemployment insurance premium costs down.
Maryland had about $1.3 billion in the fund from which it pays unemployment benefits as of the beginning of the year, according to federal data. At that level, the state is at risk of needing to borrow federal money to meet its unemployment benefit obligations, ranking 37th among states on a measure of fund solvency, according to a U.S. Department of Labor report.
Whether that becomes necessary will depend on how long coronavirus-related business closures last.
Gov. Larry Hogan ordered gyms and movie theaters to close indefinitely, and he has limited restaurants and bars to carryout or delivery only. About 259,000 people work in the state’s restaurant industry alone, about 9% of the state workforce, according to the Restaurant Association of Maryland.
And after Hogan ordered all non-essential businesses closed, state labor and commerce officials announced stepped-up plans to assist small-business owners and their employees. That included $175 million in a business relief program to help businesses retain and continue to pay employees, and a loosening of normal rules for recipients of unemployment benefits.
Here’s what you need to know if you are among those out of work.
Who can file for unemployment?
The system is for people who have lost jobs through no fault of their own, including both part-time and full-time workers. Amid the coronavirus pandemic, that includes those laid off because of losses of business or production tied to the outbreak.
Some people who have been ordered by a doctor or public health official to isolate themselves may also be eligible for unemployment benefits, according to the state labor department.
Legislation the General Assembly approved last week makes people eligible for benefits if they have to leave their jobs to avoid risk of coronavirus exposure or to care for an infected family member. Hogan signed the measure into law last month, and it took effect immediately.
People can also file for unemployment if their workplace is closed because of social distancing orders, even if they haven’t been formally laid off from their jobs.
And the federal COVID-19 stimulus legislation, the CARES Act, also offers unemployment to a sector of the economy not traditionally eligible for the benefits — the self-employed, including so-called “gig” economy workers.
Maryland’s system is not yet set up to process those claims, though, and it’s unclear when it will be ready, Robinson said Friday. Labor officials are asking people who will become eligible for unemployment benefits under that policy to enter their e-mail addresses on its website so they can be alerted when the state can start taking their claims.
How do you claim unemployment benefits?
Unemployment claims can be submitted online through the state Labor Department website, or by phone from 7 a.m. until 6 p.m. weekdays. Claimants are asked to provide basic information, including name, Social Security number, address and telephone number; and employment information, including employer contact information and the reason for leaving each job held within the past 18 months.
Maryland also added a new online portal for jobless claims on April 24.
Anyone who works for the federal government or who has worked outside of Maryland for any part of the past 18 months must file for unemployment by phone, though Ricci said labor officials are looking to allow more people the ability to file online. Ricci said Thursday all residents who have successfully filed initial unemployment claims, whether by phone or online, can now use the online system to seek benefits for past weeks.
For faster service, state labor officials are encouraging people to stagger when they call or go online to request assistance, with last names A through F filing on Mondays, last names G through N filing on Tuesdays and last names O through Z filing on Wednesdays and all names on Thursday and Friday. Marylanders will be helped whenever they file, but officials hope the voluntary system could help spread out the unprecedented surge of claims.
Freeman said the state is working with employers who are making mass layoffs to smooth the unemployment claims process for those workers, collecting lists of names directly from the employers.
To continue receiving the benefits, recipients must report any income and, typically, they must also document that they are regularly searching for new work. But Robinson said the state is waiving the work search requirement during the coronavirus pandemic.
How much money can you receive?
For most recipients, unemployment benefits are calculated using their earnings over the first four of the last five calendar quarters — so, for anyone who first became eligible for benefits in March, benefits are based on income earned in the year that ended Sept. 30. For those filing initial claims this month or in May or June, benefits will be based on calendar year 2019 earnings.
People generally receive about half of gross weekly wages, up to a maximum of $430 a week. Anyone eligible for unemployment insurance in Maryland can receive at least $50 a week. Normally, benefits can be paid out for as long as 26 weeks.
But the federal government is increasing those payouts as part of an economic relief bill in Congress. A significant expansion of unemployment benefits for the millions who will lose jobs as a result of the coronavirus outbreak was included in what is known as the CARES Act.
That includes a provision to offer an extra $600 a week on top of the unemployment aid that states provide, making Marylanders eligible for up to $1,030 a week through the end of July. Another allows people to collect benefits for 13 extra weeks,
But that money has not yet reached jobless residents. Robinson said Friday that it will begin going out with unemployment benefits for the week that started April 4. The labor department is still working to reprogram its system to begin offering the extra 13 weeks of benefits, Robinson said.
What do unemployment claims mean for employers?
Companies pay unemployment insurance taxes for each employee, and the amount depends on how often they have laid off workers over the past three years. For most employers, it’s $25.50 per employee, but rates can go as high as $637.50 if companies lay large numbers of people off.
Any unemployment claims tied to layoffs can increase those taxes by adding to what is known as an employer’s experience rating. The more a company’s former employees seek unemployment benefits, the higher that employer’s experience rating; the higher the experience rating, the more the company pays in unemployment taxes.
Unemployment tax rates are set at the beginning of each calendar year, based on the amount of money the state has in its unemployment insurance trust fund on Sept. 30 of the prior year. So employers would not see any changes in tax rates until 2021.
State labor officials are in discussions with their federal counterparts about how to potentially limit the impact of coronavirus-related layoffs on future tax rates. That could include granting employers waivers for any increases to their experience ratings tied to layoffs that occur during temporary coronavirus-related business shutdowns.
Baltimore Sun reporter Pamela Wood contributed to this article.