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Maryland’s broken unemployment system needs an overhaul. Here’s how to fix it. | COMMENTARY

Maryland’s broken unemployment system has caused tremendous damage to workers in the state. In our union, UNITE HERE Local 25, 90% have still not returned to work. As hotel and hospitality workers, they were disproportionately affected by the pandemic. For too many, the unemployment insurance system became a logistical nightmare rather than the lifeline they needed.

Many of our members are in dire, frightening financial circumstances because of the economic fallout from COVID-19. Most of them continue to rely on government services like unemployment insurance so they can meet basic human needs for themselves and their families. UNITE HERE members, like so many Maryland workers, have paid into the unemployment system for years with the expectation that the state would come through for them when they needed it most.

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Since the beginning of the pandemic, nearly one year ago, Maryland’s unemployment insurance system has received more than 900,000 claims. While the vast majority of the claims have been processed, more than 40,000 are still being adjudicated, leaving too many Marylanders in financial limbo. A Stateline analysis shows that as of Nov. 1, Maryland had the third slowest rate of processing claims in the country, trailed only by South Dakota and Kentucky.

That is why we’re supporting the package of reforms before the Maryland General Assembly sponsored by Senate President Bill Ferguson, House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones and Democratic leaders to immediately fix the broken unemployment insurance system. This legislative package will make certain that Maryland workers experience better customer service and faster response times, and it will make essential fixes to ensure that a failure on this scale never occurs again.

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Here are just a few of the experiences our members have had trying to access their unemployment benefits. One member who works in Maryland was laid off in March but didn’t receive his unemployment payment until October. When his unemployment checks for the preceding six months finally came through, he was short the $600 weekly federal supplement he was owed.

Another Maryland member also laid off in March still has not received a single check. Numerous members have reported racking up crippling amounts of debt, being unable to pay rent and utility bills, and even running short on food due to lack of funds caused by delayed unemployment insurance payments.

That’s why these fixes to the unemployment insurance system are so needed. The legislation sets timelines and guidelines for the Maryland Department of Labor to complete claims, requiring that 92% of claims be settled within 21 days. It further creates a standard for claims that need adjudication, setting an 8-week deadline to settle 97% of those claims and giving filers a single point of contact within the department. And the proposal creates an easier process for applicants to track their claims and mandates appropriate staffing at the Department of Labor to meet demand.

Other pieces of the legislation respond to worker’s needs now by allowing them to receive their benefits as paper checks or through direct deposit or a debit card. It provides for adequate language access, including materials in other languages and rewriting materials in readily understandable language. With the overwhelming majority of our members speaking English as a second language, if at all, this is essential. This legislation substantially increases the amount Marylanders can earn while still receiving unemployment benefits, a necessary change for the new gig economy. And it would make it easier for people who lose their jobs — and often their benefits — to begin the process of signing up for health insurance through the state’s insurance exchange

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This is an extraordinary time, a stress test for our health care system, local economy and government. Unfortunately, Maryland has failed on one of the most important supports that workers have. Let’s enact these bills to modernize Maryland’s unemployment system and make sure the state is getting necessary aid to workers and their families quickly and efficiently.

John Boardman is executive secretary-treasurer, UNITE HERE Local 25. His email address is jboardman@local25now.org.

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