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Amid progress, thousands still struggling with Maryland’s unemployment system

Kate Peterson, who has lost patience after not yet receiving unemployment benefits from the state and federal governments for four months, poses at her home Fri., Jul., 10, 2020. (Karl Merton Ferron/Baltimore Sun Staff)
Kate Peterson, who has lost patience after not yet receiving unemployment benefits from the state and federal governments for four months, poses at her home Fri., Jul., 10, 2020. (Karl Merton Ferron/Baltimore Sun Staff) (Karl Merton Ferron / Baltimore Sun)

Four months into an unemployment crisis spawned by the coronavirus pandemic, about 24,000 people remain unable to get the full benefits they’ve applied for through Maryland’s Department of Labor.

Claims from about 4% of applicants are awaiting adjudication in the state’s problem-plagued unemployment insurance system, officials acknowledge. That has left many with little or no income as bills continue to come due. For some, that includes federal and state income taxes due this week.

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“I can’t pay the State of Maryland until the State of Maryland pays me,” said Kate Peterson, a Millersville resident.

A private contractor in the trade show business, Peterson is among many whose claims have hit snags in a system that otherwise has successfully processed and approved payments to nearly a half-million applicants.

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She said she’s had trouble getting through on jammed phone lines or by email to resolve issues that have resulted in receiving no payments some weeks or less than the full amount others. Her husband, who works in the same field, retained his job but with a pay cut, she said.

Kate Peterson, who has lost patience after not yet receiving unemployment benefits from the state and federal governments for four months, poses at her home Fri., Jul., 10, 2020. (Karl Merton Ferron/Baltimore Sun Staff)
Kate Peterson, who has lost patience after not yet receiving unemployment benefits from the state and federal governments for four months, poses at her home Fri., Jul., 10, 2020. (Karl Merton Ferron/Baltimore Sun Staff) (Karl Merton Ferron / Baltimore Sun)

“It’s been tough,” Peterson said. “We’ve tightened every belt. We’ve gotten rid of every bill we don’t need. We’ve put things off. We modified the mortgage.

“We didn’t expect it to last as long as it did,” Peterson said.

A state labor department spokeswoman did not respond to a request for an interview. At a General Assembly hearing last week, Labor Secretary Tiffany Robinson told lawmakers that the system is overwhelmed by the sheer number of applications from people cast into unemployment by the pandemic.

Indications are that neither the coronavirus nor the economic fallout will go away soon.

In Maryland, new unemployment claims have risen each of the past four weeks, creating fresh demands on an already overburdened system. And with some businesses failing to survive the shutdown and closing permanently, their workers don’t have jobs to return to and will remain on unemployment.

“A lot aren’t reopening,” said state Sen. Delores G. Kelley, a Baltimore County Democrat. “And if we get the second round [of outbreaks], there are going to be problems.”

Kelley chairs the Senate Finance Committee, which was among the General Assembly panels that held hearings in May on the problems their constituents faced in filing for unemployment through the recently established Beacon One-Stop portal. More than 1,000 people signed up to testify, sharing frustrating experiences that one woman called “soul crushing.”

A statement by Gov. Larry Hogan in early May that the system was “fixed” only added to the angst of those whose claims remained bollixed up in the system.

The Republican governor praised the department Wednesday for reducing the backlog of unprocessed claims to a percentage “in line with pre-pandemic levels.”

“I can tell you the department is working day and night to try to get those people the help they need,” he said.

Kelley and other legislators say constituents continue to call them with complaints about the system even now, albeit at a slower pace. She said it took “some time” for Department of Labor officials to respond and begin to remedy the problems.

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“Initially, I felt like they were being defensive,” she said.

I’m still getting daily requests for help, but not to the extent of when we had the hearing,” Kelley said. “There was a time when we were getting hundreds a day.”

Maryland workers will gather in protest of the state’s ongoing failure to process unemployment claims filed during the COVID-19 crisis.

Sen. Guy J. Guzzone, a Howard County Democrat who chairs the Budget and Taxation Committee, said his office has about 40 to 50 open cases of constituents it is trying to help get unemployment benefits, a “significantly” smaller number than a couple of months ago.

“But as far as I’m concerned, until every individual who is eligible gets their money, I don’t think anyone should rest,” Guzzone said.

He and other legislators have referred complaints to labor department staff, and according to some Facebook postings, the legislative intervention sometimes helps applicants get their calls or emails returned.

At last week’s General Assembly hearing, Robinson said her agency is struggling with the massive increase in applications. In a typical week before the pandemic, she said, the state might have had about 2,000 unemployment insurance claims, a number that peaked at about 6,000 during the Great Recession a decade ago.

In some weeks since the outbreak, the state fielded more than 100,000 claims, Robinson said.

“During this pandemic, we have seen over a 5,000% increase,” she told members of the Joint Committee on Unemployment Insurance Oversight.

From early March through late June, unemployed Marylanders received a “very historical” amount of more than $3.6 billion in state and federal benefits, Robinson said.

Of the more than 624,000 claims filed, about 78% have been paid and 17% denied, with about 3.8% — or almost 24,000 people — still waiting for a determination.

Those still waiting for an answer may have any number of outstanding issues that need to be resolved, officials have said, including discrepancies in information provided by the employee and the employer, incomplete documentation, and disputes over how much is due, particularly if the claimant received severance pay or picked up an occasional gig.

“Some issues may require an interview with the claimant and an employer, which can add to the complexity and timeline of a case,” labor department spokeswoman Fallon Pearre said in an email.

Maryland is not unique, with unemployment offices across the country similarly overwhelmed by the number of claims brought on by the pandemic.

Some delays and problems stem from issues with new programs added by the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security, or CARES, Act which expanded unemployment benefits to those previously ineligible, such as gig workers and the self-employed, or those whose medical conditions make them particularly vulnerable during the pandemic.

Applicants like Bri Ashman say they’ve had to wait several weeks to be rejected for regular unemployment before they could apply for benefits under the CARES Act. The Columbia resident’s claim is still pending, and she’s been without income since mid-April.

Ashman suffers from a rare hereditary syndrome that puts her at risk for potentially life-threatening pulmonary problems, and on the advice of her doctor stopped working in March to avoid contracting the coronavirus and its respiratory disease, COVID-19. She had been a teller at a credit union, which continued to pay her for a month, but then was told her continued absence would be considered a voluntary resignation that she was then able to appeal.

Now she waits, and waits and waits, for the resolution of multiple “hiccups” in applying for unemployment, from issues logging in to her Social Security number not working to an inability getting through by phone or email.

“Its been scary and terrifying,” the mother of a two-year-old said. “My savings have been drained, my BGE bill has skyrocketed because I’m home all day, and I have to rely on people to bring me groceries.”

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Her ex-husband, who has been helping out, quarantined with her and their son early on for two weeks, she said. Ironically, he was able to get unemployment for that period citing her health problems, even though her own application remains pending, Ashman said.

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Other issues have served to add to the system’s problems, such as what the FBI has called a spike in fraudulent claims involving identity theft.

Some applicants say the balance on the debit cards through which benefits are paid has been taken away and withheld because of possible fraud, and that they’re told they need to upload additional documentation to verify their identity. But some say they have trouble uploading those documents or getting their payments restored.

Michael Brooks, who previously was a contract worker who taught diabetes-prevention classes, said $5,000 recently vanished from his debit card.

“To have that wiped away was devastating,” he said, “and now I’m in limbo.”

Brooks said after his work went away, he could no longer afford to live in Prince George’s County and moved back to North Carolina. He said he uploaded identifying documents, but can’t get through to find out the status of his claim.

Claimants have shared tips on Facebook groups like Maryland DIY — REAL ANSWERS, which has 27,700 members. Tips include what numbers to hit when you call and trying the Spanish-language option even if you only speak English.

Some in the group worry how they’ll make ends meet when the federal pandemic aid that added $600 a week to unemployment payments expires at the end of the month.

Like others, Peterson said she has had problems resolving how much she is due, which was complicated by the fact that she was able to do some work for one client. She said she has spent as long as 10 hours on the phone, only to be disconnected.

As she awaits resolution, she decided to take a job, even though it pays far less than what she made as her own boss. But it does comes with benefits and, apparently, job security: Peterson expects to begin working soon as a coronavirus contact tracer.

“At least,” Peterson said, “I’ll be a part of the solution to the problem.”

Baltimore Sun reporter Nathan Ruiz contributed to this article.

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