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Maryland is testing its new unemployment system this weekend before launch

Saying the department has learned its lesson from April — when the Beacon One-Stop portal to apply for unemployment benefits debuted and promptly crashed — Maryland Labor Secretary Tiffany Robinson told lawmakers Thursday that staff and vendors will test an updated version of the new online unemployment system this weekend.

If anything seems amiss, Robinson said, the scheduled midnight Saturday launch of the 2.0 version to the public will be delayed.

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“We believe we are in a good place,” Robinson told senators and delegates in an online briefing. “It is a major IT project. There is always a chance of some kind of glitch.”

Beacon 2.0 will expand what claimants can do online, instead of needing to email or call staff on overwhelmed phone lines. The system also will allow employers access to respond to questions from the department, Robinson said, which should prevent delays staff has had in reaching them by phone when some of their businesses are closed.

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“That’s huge,” she told members of the Senate Finance Committee and the House of Delegates Economic Matters Committee.

Robinson offered further details on the department’s July announcement that it had uncovered a massive criminal enterprise to fraudulently obtain a half-billion dollars worth of unemployment benefits from the state.

On Thursday, Robinson said the department canceled 48,280 accounts of out-of-state claimants to investigate them for fraud. They were asked to upload additional documents to verify their identity, and about 90 percent of them failed to do that, Robinson said, leading the department to assume their claims were fraudulent.

Robinson said about 4,600 claimants did provide documents, and about 2,500 of them were found valid and payments were resumed. The rest were deemed fraudulent and denied, she said.

Robinson said the department continues to work with the U.S. Attorney’s Office, and that she hopes indictments will be filed.

Additionally, she said, staff have identified other potentially fraudulent claims, more than 95,000 from out of state and more than 57,500 in-state.

“We’ve saw passports with movie stars' pictures on them,” she said of some uploaded documents. “We saw fake Social Security cards."

A couple of lawmakers questioned whether some cases deemed fraudulent are simply people making mistakes in filing their applications.

“They haven’t committed fraud," suggested Delegate C.T. Wilson, a Charles County Democrat. "It’s just been a confusion.”

Dayne Freeman, assistant secretary for the division of unemployment insurance, said there is an appeals process if someone believes they’ve been wrongly accused of fraud.

Legislators told Robinson said they continue to hear from constituents unable to resolve problems with their claims and, without unemployment benefits, growing increasingly desperate.

Delegate Lorig Charkoudian said some of her constituents are “barely surviving,” and despite Robinson’s assurances that her staff is working to resolve the problems, they still are not receiving benefits.

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“It’s a survival challenge at this point,” said Charkoudian, a Montgomery County Democrat. “It’s, how are they going to make it through the next week?"

Robinson said she’s still hiring staff to help with the huge volume of claims that continues to come in. She said there have been times when claimants have contacted so many people — their representatives, the governor’s office, the media, all of whom then call the department — that it takes staff time away from resolving other applicants' problems.

Robinson also updated the committees on the federal Lost Wages Assistance program, that paid an extra $300 a week for as much as six weeks to qualified claimants on top of their regular unemployment benefits. It replaces a previous supplement of $600 a week that unemployed Americans received until it expired in July.

In Maryland, 378,016 people received the $300 a week payment for the weeks that they were eligible, Robinson said.

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