For those who took the time to monitor Tuesday’s marathon Zoom hearing conducted by two state Senate committees, what’s been going on behind the scenes with unemployment benefits in Maryland is something close to horrifying. About 500 people from all over the state, representing various professions (from child care worker to Johns Hopkins lab technician) and most every age, gender and race, told lawmakers of their mind-bending efforts to secure payments promised to them by the state and federal governments. For many, perhaps even most, it was the first time they had ever attempted to collect an unemployment check. But they were stymied at every turn, by a balky website, by unanswered email, by hours-long phone queues and by plain, old-fashioned red tape.
And what bothered them the most? No one conducted a poll, and no votes were cast, but a pattern of complaints could be discerned early in the 9-hour marathon virtual hearing, a first-of-its-kind for the General Assembly. What really got under the skin of many of the speakers was the declaration by state officials, particularly by Gov. Larry Hogan, that the problem had been fixed. Many recalled how their governor had made that claim on WBAL-TV last week. And making matters worse, he didn’t just claim they were repaired on May 6, when he was interviewed on Channel 11, but insisted that it had been fixed for “10 days.” That, to be it politely, really felt like salt poured into their wounds.
One Frederick man, who has been seeking payment for himself and his wife for two months and still hasn’t gotten a check, said that when he finally got someone on the phone, the person seemed just as frustrated as he was and soon hung up on him. “We’re all stressed out over this crap,” he recalled her telling him, “except she didn’t use that word.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has caused record unemployment claims nationwide, with hundreds of thousands of people filing claims in Maryland over the last two months alone. Added benefits and eligibility changes (the self-employed, for example, now being qualified for aid) have made the task of processing them a herculean challenge . And it surely didn’t help that the state Department of Labor adopted a new online application system, Beacon One-Stop, three weeks ago.
That launch was hardly smooth with multiple system crashes, and Governor Hogan, at least initially, had a pitch perfect response: apologizing for the anxiety it caused and even adopting the well-worn but still serviceable Harry Truman line that the “buck stops with me.” What has happened since then is somewhat less clear. Labor Secretary Tiffany Robinson told members of the House Economic Matters Committee Wednesday that her agency has processed two-thirds of 494,728 unemployment insurance claims received since early March with 90% of claimants receiving a check within three weeks.
If that’s true then a significant percentage of those who haven’t gotten their money went to the trouble to go on Zoom or record their first-hand accounts on Tuesday. One woman described waking up at 6:30 a.m. (phone lines didn’t open until 7) so she could spend the entire day on hold. Another from Prince George’s County said she had been told that very morning that someone would be getting back to her. That was nine hours earlier, and she had yet to hear anything. One witness, a professional disc jockey, recalled how he had done everything asked of him from filling out forms to watching tutorials and, since filing April 29, still does not know whether his application has been denied or accepted. “It’s very frustrating,” he added.
Amazingly, despite all the hardships and annoyances of not receiving promised help, despite all the personal and financial challenges the witnesses faced as their unpaid bills mounted while their bank accounts remained depleted, many insisted it was not the fault of the state employees or the contracted workers they eventually heard from, even if those who could not fix the problem. “This is America and we can fix a website,” one optimistic older man insisted. That kind of faith deserves to be rewarded with honesty. Marylanders won’t begrudge mistakes by state government, what’s often harder to swallow is when a pattern of shortcomings is denied or papered over. That’s an error Mr. Hogan would be wise not to repeat as state government continues to grapple with pandemic challenges.
The Baltimore Sun editorial board — made up of Opinion Editor Tricia Bishop, Deputy Editor Andrea K. McDaniels and writer Peter Jensen — offers opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. It is separate from the newsroom.