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Maryland’s handling of unemployment claims worse than you know | COMMENTARY

Gail Willis of Baltimore City, in front, rallied with others outside the Department of Labor office on North Calvert Street to bring attention to grievances of the unemployed in a protest organized by the Unemployed Workers Union.
Gail Willis of Baltimore City, in front, rallied with others outside the Department of Labor office on North Calvert Street to bring attention to grievances of the unemployed in a protest organized by the Unemployed Workers Union. (Amy Davis/Baltimore Sun)

We have all heard how the Maryland Department of Labor has done a poor job handling unemployment claims. But, it is worse than you even know.

Every single week, I set aside an entire day just to handle unemployment claims for the office of the delegate I work with. I ask every person who contacts our office about unemployment to follow up with me each Tuesday and then later in the week after I receive updates from the Department of Labor. I follow up with every one of those emails to let constituents know what new information I had received about their case.

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It started off well, but the Department of Labor is not even trying to be an active participant in these conversations anymore.

Most of the time the updates I receive from the Department of Labor for individual cases literally say, “no update.” Either that or there just is nothing written at all. This goes on for the same cases for months at a time. I have had cases every week say “no update” for over two months. I currently have cases listed as submitted in early July where the updates section is left blank week after week.

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Meanwhile, claimants are regularly emailed by different claims agents and told the agents have been “diligently working on their claims.” When I reached out to our office’s contacts at the Department of Labor, it’s more common than not that they do not even reply.

It is important to note that as a legislative staffer, the state caps my number of working days during sine die to three per week, and I’m spending an entire day fighting for information on cases of unemployment.

The “unprecedented situation” excuse may have been an acceptable answer for a few months, but we are a year and a half into this, and things are getting worse and worse and communication between the Department of Labor and claimants and Department of Labor and legislative offices is now pretty much nonexistent.

Recently, the office went two weeks without receiving an update from the Department of Labor. Emails from claimants were piling up. I was not sure how to respond without hearing anything from the Department of Labor at all. Then, the intern who sends us the weekly spreadsheet with updates from the individual claims agents emailed us and said he was sorry for the delay but he was on vacation and just got back.

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Nobody else within the entire Department of Labor could fill in to provide an update to legislative offices for unemployment cases while an intern was taking a vacation?

I have also regularly submitted questions about individual cases to top assistant directors within the Department of Labor, but I was told by one of them that claims agents submit notes and they are just sent out on these spreadsheets each week. I was not told a way to get these questions to claims agents answered.

Both myself and the delegate for whom I work are committed to fighting through these struggles of communication with the Department of Labor, because we want to make sure people who reach out to us for help know we really do care about helping them. It does stress us out when we cannot provide adequate updates, and we feel bad we cannot offer more help than we are. But honestly, I do not understand how the governor, lieutenant governor and high ups within the Department of Labor seem OK with what is happening.

I have seen zero effort from them to improve the situation. I have only seen an effort to remove themselves further from these issues, while people are without income for months, accruing unbeatable debts trying to survive and losing homes to foreclosure.

We are doing the best we can, but the Department of Labor is making it a nearly impossible task for us to keep constituents informed about what is going on with their unemployment cases.

Corey Johns (Twitter: @Corey_Johns) is chief of staff for Delegate Michele Guyton, District 42B in Baltimore County.

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