Marylanders are reporting website slowdowns, busy signals and long waits on hold to submit applications for emergency cash to live on as the number of applications for unemployment in recent weeks approaches the state’s total for all of 2019.
And state officials said there is meanwhile no clear timeline for when residents will be able to receive an extra $600 in weekly unemployment benefits as part of the federal COVID-19 stimulus package approved by Congress and signed by President Donald Trump.
All of that comes on top of an unemployment claims process that can take three weeks even in normal times.
“It’ll be a month, probably, before I see money from the time I’ve been furloughed,” said Lisa Moyer, a dental assistant on the Delmarva peninsula who said she called the state unemployment more than 500 times Tuesday before getting through. “There’s got to be a better way.”
Complaints across the state labor department’s social media accounts are echoing similar stories from concerned and confused residents.
Mike Ricci, a spokesman for Gov. Larry Hogan, said state labor officials are working to reduce the backlog, including by training more people to staff the state’s unemployment claims call center. Most residents can file online, but anyone who works for the federal government or who has worked outside the state within the past 18 months must submit claims by phone.
“There’s great frustration out there about the unemployment claims process right now, and understandably so,” he wrote on Twitter. “We are working as fast as we can to upgrade our systems to allow even more people to file online.”
A state labor department spokeswoman did not respond to a request for interviews with Labor Secretary Tiffany Robinson or Dayne Freeman, assistant secretary for the division of unemployment insurance.
More than 132,000 people filed for unemployment in Maryland in March, meaning the state will soon surpass the 165,000 jobless claims submitted in all of 2019, according to federal data.
The calls are coming in at a rate of about 500 per hour, Ricci said, and that overwhelming volume means some of those calls do get dropped.
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To respond to the surge, the state has extended its unemployment claims call center hours to 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. And Ricci said call center employees are working “around the clock” to process claims, and answering questions sent by e-mail to email@example.com.
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The state also is waiting on help from the federal government to speed the process and get checks flowing.
Claims from all states must go through a federal database to verify claimaints’ social security numbers, and the overwhelming demand on that system has slowed claims down across the country. But Ricci said the federal labor department recently added a server to speed up that review.
The federal CARES Act included money for an additional $600 per week in employment benefits — on top of the $50 to $430 per week Maryland normally pays out — and provisions to allow self-employed people to receive unemployment benefits.
But Ricci said the state did not receive guidance on how to put those new policies into practice until late Sunday, and Maryland officials are still working on reprogramming their systems to reflect the changes.
He stressed that residents would not lose out on benefits because of the logjam, and that they will be able to file for benefits from past weeks even if they missed deadlines to file.