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Maryland’s labor secretary promises unemployment improvements as tens of thousands out of work await benefits

Maryland’s labor secretary said Wednesday that her staff is working hard to fix problems with the state’s unemployment system that have left thousands of people frustrated and unable to get benefits.

Secretary Tiffany Robinson said her team has been putting in long hours and working with contractors to update the unemployment website, add phone lines and hire more workers to accommodate the record-setting crush of applications for unemployment due to coronavirus shutdowns.

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“When it’s working perfectly, we know it will be the best solution for our customers,” Robinson told members of the House of Delegates Economic Matters Committee during a video briefing Wednesday afternoon.

Since March, the state has received nearly 500,000 applications for unemployment benefits. Nearly two-thirds of applicants have received payments, while 7% have been denied.

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That leaves 27% in “adjudication” — essentially a form of limbo while issues with their claims are sorted out.

When applicants do get approved, they start receiving payments within three weeks 90% of the time, Robinson said.

Robinson said the state has added workers to the unemployment office and expanded the call center hours. However, the state is limited by having just 200 phone lines, which Robinson said she’s working to expand.

“It continues to be challenging,” she said.

The state’s new Beacon unemployment website that launched on April 24 is being regularly updated to fix issues and adapt to new directives from the federal government.

“We are working on the system and operating it all at the same time,” she said.

For weeks, unemployed Marylanders have expressed frustration about being held up by website problems, unable to get through on the phone or being left on hold. Hundreds of people testified live or sent in videos for a state Senate hearing on unemployment system problems Wednesday.

“We’ve been hearing a great deal from constituents,” said Del. Dereck Davis, a Prince George’s County Democrat who chairs the House Economic Matters Committee that held Wednesday’s hearing.

Several lawmakers expressed concerns that a potential second wave of coronavirus infections could result in more restrictions on activities and job losses later in the year. They wanted assurances that issues with unemployment benefits would be addressed by then.

Davis said his committee would continue to hold meetings to monitor the state’s progress on fixing problems. “We’re going to stay on top of it," he said.

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