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Maryland lawmakers announce unemployment reform package

Maryland lawmakers announced a package of measures to overhaul the state’s unemployment system Thursday, after describing how they have been flooded with complaints during the coronavirus pandemic from their constituents about delays, difficulties and unresponsiveness.

House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones and Senate President Bill Ferguson announced the plan to put a new framework in place.

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“Today’s package is a mix of short-and long-term solutions to do two things," said Jones, a Democrat. "First, make sure Marylanders aren’t left in limbo for weeks and months on benefits their families need, and to chart a new vision for our unemployment system that prepares us for emergencies like pandemics — and position us to provide more help to struggling Marylanders when they need it the most.”

Ferguson, D-Baltimore, said as of Thursday morning there were 4,000 active cases that senators’ staff were working to address.

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“The unemployment insurance system in our state is symbolic of a broken system,” Ferguson said.

But a spokesman for Republican Gov. Larry Hogan countered that Maryland has resolved more than 95% of claims throughout the pandemic, while aggressively blocking fraud. He criticized the legislature, saying state laws from years ago leave claimants “vulnerable to being stuck in a complicated adjudication process.”

“What is being proposed today is a Band-Aid and not even close to a real and permanent fix,” Hogan spokesperson Mike Ricci said, adding, “It does not address the root problem of having a system that operates completely differently in resolving cases from 46 other states.”

Ricci said all but four states are "pay or deny” states. That means determining whether an unemployment insurance claimant is disqualified is a one-step process. If a claimant voluntarily quits without good cause, is terminated for misconduct, or refuses suitable work, they are denied with no additional consideration.

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Maryland, however, is one of four mitigation states. That, he said, means rather than a straight denial of eligibility, adjudicators must follow up and determine mitigating factors.

“Claimants deserve a prompt determination on their claim, but Maryland law makes that nearly impossible,” Ricci wrote in an email. “We have emphasized this in the past, including at a meeting of the Board of Public Works.”

One proposal in the package proposed Thursday seeks to ensure the state's call center is adequately staffed and making it easier to allow people to leave a callback number while requiring caller ID for calls to claimants. Another would require adequate language access and a comprehensive review of all unemployment insurance materials, including the website, for reading accessibility.

The package calls for a checkbox for applicants to get their information to the Health Benefit Exchange for health insurance assistance. Another proposal would require the Maryland Department of Labor to track the percentage of laid off workers who apply for benefits and establish mandated goals.

Lawmakers also want to create metrics for claim adjudication and requirements for response times.

The proposal would increase the income disregard, so residents can earn some money while still receiving unemployment benefits. Lawmakers also are proposing assistance for struggling businesses to handle increase costs of unemployment insurance because of pandemic-related layoffs.

The package also would require the Labor Department to study broader reforms and require monthly updates until completing a final report by the end of the year.

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