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Maryland unemployment portal to go down nightly for repairs as users continue to report problems

Acknowledging that the launch of a new unemployment application has “fallen short," Maryland labor officials said they will take the site down from 1 a.m. to 3 a.m. daily to try to fix ongoing technical problems.

The new portal for unemployment benefits, called Beacon One-Stop, launched Friday to help the hundreds of thousands of Marylanders out of work because of the closures and stay-at-home measures meant to curtail the spread of the coronavirus. It was supposed to allow those who previously had to file claims by phone, such as federal workers or those in the military, to apply online as others do.

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But it was been swamped with applicants and quickly crashed. While it was put back in service and some applicants say they’ve been able to file claims, it has been running slowly, if at all, for others.

Some say their existing passwords weren’t recognized or they were placed in lengthy online queues. Others said they were confused by some of the application questions or were unable to file the weekly certifications required to continue to receive benefits. Phone lines to the department’s Unemployment Insurance Division also have been jammed.

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The division apologized Monday for the difficulties.

“We share your frustration,” the division said in a letter sent to applicants, “and are committed to ensuring the site is fully functional and operating without capacity delays as quickly as possible.”

In addition to taking the site down every morning for repairs, the state has created a virtual gate to prevent too many applicants from trying to access the system at the same time to file for unemployment benefits: Only those trying to file weekly claim certifications should log in on Sundays and Mondays, although if they are unsuccessful they can try on any other day. Those who are filing new claims or have any other needs should try to access the site Tuesday through Saturday.

The new portal is designed for a range of unemployment claims: from those who were already allowed to apply online as well as gig workers, the self-employed and others who previously had to make their claims by telephone. The new portal was needed to accommodate those who in the past might not have gotten unemployment but now qualify for new pandemic relief assistance, the labor department said.

The department said it partnered with Sagitec Solutions, an outside vendor, rather than attempt to program its existing system to add those applying for the aid provided under the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security, or CARES, Act. That would have taken weeks, if not months, the department said.

“We were hopeful that our partnership with the vendor would provide rapid solutions. Instead, it has caused a series of challenges for applicants,” said the letter, signed by Labor Secretary Tiffany P. Robinson. “The vendor’s platform could not sustain the volume of visitors to the site. This was not acceptable, and we are taking immediate actions to fix these problems.”

Sagitec Solutions, a Minnesota company, did not respond to calls and emails seeking comment.

Some people were getting through over the weekend, state officials said. As of early Sunday morning, for example, more than 99,049 accounts had been activated, 56,200 claims had been filed and 62,067 weekly certifications had been filed.

Still, many remain unable to get through the process on the Beacon site.

Sheer volume is likely a factor, given the number of newly unemployed Marylanders. From March 15 through April 18, more than 344,000 people filed for unemployment in the state, far more than the 215,000 all of last year.

“Since Friday, our phones have been inundated by people frustrated by the process,” said Matthew Verghese, deputy chief of staff for U.S. Rep. Anthony G. Brown.

Verghese said constituents have sent in screenshots showing that when they enter the website, it says they’re “230,000th” in line and the wait time is “more than an hour.”

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People can’t get through online or by phone and are wondering, “What is the next plan?" he said.

“We don’t have a place to send them to,” Verghese said. “I think as we get closer to May 1, there’s a sense of despair as bills are coming due.”

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