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Dozens of Maryland workers detail unemployment woes in online hearing

Many unemployed Marylanders shared their frustrations with the state's unemployment benefits system during an online state Senate hearing on Tuesday.
Many unemployed Marylanders shared their frustrations with the state's unemployment benefits system during an online state Senate hearing on Tuesday. (Paul W. Gillespie/Capital Gazette)

From their living rooms and dining room tables, unemployed Marylanders poured their frustrations and fears out into their webcams and cell phones, hoping the state lawmakers who were listening might be able to help them somehow.

“It’s soul crushing,” said Beth Bell, one of the hundreds of people who signed up to speak during a state Senate hearing on the extensive problems with Maryland’s unemployment insurance system on Tuesday.

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Bell, like tens of thousands of Maryland residents thrown out of work due to the coronavirus pandemic, has gotten stuck in the unemployment system. Nearly one in five working Marylanders has filed for unemployment benefits since coronavirus restrictions forced many schools and businesses to close.

Workers described a broken system that’s frustrating to navigate.

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Some said they initially had success with the state’s old unemployment filing system, but then faced problems when a new system called Beacon One-Stop went online.

Others recounted holding on the phone for hours on end, hoping to get an employee to answer and help them. They also told of writing email after email, only to get pre-written responses.

One woman said she was hoping to get her unemployment cleared up before being induced to give birth Friday.

Many who testified said they found more answers in Facebook groups than from the state.

Massage therapists, DJs and child care workers spoke of spending their days glued to the unemployment website instead of doing the jobs that they love. They described frustration at seeing Gov. Larry Hogan on television saying the problems have been fixed, when they’ve been stuck in unemployment limbo.

“Who’s being held accountable for all of these lives who are being ruined by this?” asked Amanda Douglass, who said she’s been out of work for two months with no benefits.

When state lawmakers put out a call for witnesses, more than 1,100 signed up. The first 270 were invited to testify during the meeting via Zoom, with the rest encouraged to submit videos. Some of the videos were played throughout the hours-long hearing.

Another measure of interest in the matter is the sheer number of people who watched the webcast of the meeting: The first hour drew about 1,400 viewers — significantly greater than the typical hearing audience that’s counted in the dozens.

Lawmakers did not invite representatives from Hogan’s administration to testify during the meeting, preferring instead to devote all of the time to hearing from frustrated workers.

In advance of the meeting, Hogan’s Department of Labor put out a statement saying that the state has paid benefits to more than 327,000 workers, and 90% of them started receiving money within three weeks of filing.

But worker after worker said they haven’t received any benefits.

“I just want to get something,” said Bonnie Fitzpatrick of Pasadena, who said she’s gone nine weeks of being unemployed without getting a payment.

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Fitzpatrick offered sympathy and appreciation for the state’s workers, who she thinks are stymied by the Beacon system.

“They’re busting their butt trying to help people,” she said.

Chaunta Taylor testified on behalf of her two children, who have been trying for weeks to get benefits. She worries that one might lose his car and apartment.

“I can’t do anything as a mom and it’s frustrating,” she said, emotion welling in her voice.

Hogan and his labor secretary, Tiffany Robinson, have acknowledged the state faced challenges with the overwhelming number of applicants and changes to unemployment approved by Congress. Self-employed and contract workers, for example, who usually aren’t eligible for unemployment benefits now can apply.

The state worked with its vendor to update the Beacon system, taking it down nightly to make fixes.

Hogan announced last week that all the problems were solved.

“The unemployment site has been completely fixed for at least 10 days,” the Republican governor said during a news conference May 6.

Lawmakers said, based on what they’ve been hearing, that the system is still not working properly.

“This rests at the feet of Governor Hogan. It is Governor Hogan who is at the top of the food chain," said Sen. Ben Kramer, a Montgomery County Democrat. “It is his administration and it frustrates me when I hear Governor Hogan say, ‘Everything is fine and we’ve got it all worked out,’ and on a daily basis, I am getting phone calls and emails from constituents saying, ‘Senator Kramer, I am desperate for help. I am desperate for relief.’”

“Clearly the system has not been fixed,” said Sen. Guy Guzzone, a Howard County Democrat who is chairman of the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee that held the hearing along with the Senate Finance Committee.

Sen. Delores Kelley, a Baltimore County Democrat who is chairwoman of the Finance Committee, said the testimony would help lawmakers as they advocate for Marylanders.

Unfortunately, she said, “we are not magicians, so we cannot solve it all.”

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