Anthony Brown: Hogan is failing working Maryland families by not quickly distributing unemployment benefits | COMMENTARY
By Anthony Brown
For The Baltimore Sun|
May 05, 2020 at 11:00 AM
COVID-19 has laid bare grave preparedness, health and economic shortfalls for our country. That is painfully clear in the ever-increasing death toll and for millions of newly unemployed Americans who are struggling to keep food on the table and pay bills due at the beginning of the month.
It was only on Tuesday that state officials said they had finally seen improvements to the system and significantly reduced or eliminated wait times for filing certifications. That doesn’t make up for the weeks many have gone without unemployment benefits amid a record volume of traffic, or the many families still waiting to file.
The unprecedented public health emergency and the necessary steps taken in response have caused a historic rise in unemployment in the United States. Expanding and strengthening unemployment compensation was a bipartisan priority for Congress. We expanded benefits to include those who are not normally covered, including the self-employed, gig workers and independent contractors, and increased benefits for claimants by an additional $600 per week.
But Maryland’s efforts to handle the deluge of unemployment claims has been grossly insufficient, poorly managed and clearly does not meet the needs of the unemployed. A decade after the last recession, our state’s unemployment benefits system still suffers from archaic, decades-old technology — and upgrading it has not been a priority. This outdated system hampered the state from the start of the crisis. The newly launched “one-stop” online filing system, heralded as an innovative tool to address the inadequacies of the old web form and unreasonable call center wait times, was marred by persistent difficulties despite a patchwork of supposed fixes.
Marylanders reported that processing occurred at an extremely slow pace, with many unable to even create accounts, while others were provided unrealistic wait times and told to take their turn in a long virtual queue. Residents were being asked not to use their mobile phones to access the system, even though low-wage workers and workers of color are more reliant on their phones for internet access. And thousands of others couldn’t get through on the phone lines, which were jammed for hours, or even have their emails returned for weeks.
My office has been contacted by hundreds of constituents desperate for assistance in getting answers on their unemployment payments.
Every day a Maryland worker cannot submit a claim, is another day they must wait to receive their unemployment payments. U.S. Department of Labor data showed that as of the week of April 18, nearly 50% of Marylanders who managed to file a claim were waiting to have them processed. This meant almost 200,000 Marylanders had not received their much-needed benefits — some waiting for more than six weeks.
Maryland is not alone in feeling the economic impact of this public health emergency. Yet, other states have been able to successfully handle the increased demand on their unemployment systems. Michigan, for example, has processed 68% of initial claims. While New York, the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak, has processed 90%. Maryland simply has been unable to quickly get residents critical support during this difficult time.
Unemployment is a lifeline for furloughed workers, and 40% of households in the United States have difficulty covering a $400 emergency expense. The consequences of these delays are all too real for families across our state who are getting closer to financial disaster. In the absence of regular paychecks and with exhausted savings, unemployment benefits could be the only money stopping families from experiencing extreme anxiety, food insecurity or piling on debt to afford necessities like prescriptions drugs.
I have serious questions for Sagitec, the vendor the Hogan Administration trusted to implement our unemployment programs, and we should all expect the governor to be more straightforward and forthcoming with unemployment data especially on those Marylanders awaiting a decision on their eligibility or waiting for their payment.
But we must first focus on improving our state’s application process and getting money to working families as quickly as possible. Maryland should require employers to immediately provide information about layoffs, in order to speed the process of verifying workers’ claims, ensure workers’ 1099 tax filing information is shared to streamline applications for independent contractors and self-employed workers. Governor Hogan can also presume everyone is eligible and immediately disburse benefits, and review claims later once this crisis has abated.
The people of Maryland deserve better. We must work swiftly to address these problems to ensure the safety net is there for them.