Maryland’s top official overseeing unemployment insurance promised skeptical lawmakers on Monday that her team is making headway in resolving issues of people who are stuck in the system without payment.
“We are making progress, especially considering that now the claim volume is starting to drop,” state Labor Secretary Tiffany Robinson told lawmakers during a video briefing.
As the coronavirus pandemic swept into Maryland in 2020, scores of businesses had to close temporarily and others were affected permanently, leading to record levels of unemployment. With a surge in people seeking unemployment benefits, constantly shifting rules over eligibility and fraudulent claims, there’s been a frustratingly high number of claimants stuck in limbo without receiving payments throughout the past year and a half.
Lawmakers on an unemployment oversight committee seemed exasperated that the problems continue this far into the pandemic.
“It’s just nothing seems to be working here,” said Sen. Kathy Klausmeier, a Baltimore County Democrat and co-chair of the committee. “It continues to go down and down. It’s like beating our heads on the wall. I just wish we could work together and figure out what else we can do. I don’t know that we’re doing that.”
“I’m just so frustrated at this point,” she added.
State lawmakers have been overrun with calls from constituents seeking help with their unemployment claims. Some are stuck because the Department of Labor suspects the claims are fraudulent, requiring more paperwork and review. Others have complicated situations with their work history that need to be sorted out.
Del. C.T. Wilson, a Southern Maryland Democrat, said some of his constituents are finally getting their issues resolved and receiving payments. But they are owed months and months of back payments, leaving them in a precarious financial situation.
“They’re still behind on their bills,” Wilson told Robinson.
Robinson said the Department of Labor has been working to balance making payments to those who are eligible for unemployment with not paying money for fraudulent claims or to identity thieves.
Once enhanced federally funded benefits run out after the first week of September, Robinson said her staff will be able to make more progress on resolving backed-up claims.
The federal programs add $300 weekly to each payment, expand eligibility for payments to gig and contract workers and extend more weeks of payments to people whose regular unemployment had already run out. Robinson and Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican, tried to end participation in those federal programs early, but were blocked in court by out-of-work Marylanders who sued.
Many people on unemployment in Maryland are participating in one or more of those programs. Once those programs end, the number of new claims for unemployment will drop, Robinson said. And with that drop, there should be fewer new problem cases cropping up.
That will free up Department of Labor workers and contractors to comb though the list of backlogged cases and resolve the issues, Robinson said.
“We do see a light at the end of the tunnel in September, with the federal claims ending,” Robinson said. “We will be able to get through all the issues faster when we don’t have additional issues created each week.”
For the first week in August, for example, Robinson said Maryland received about 820,000 claims for unemployment, with about 9,000 of them new claims. The state processed 97.5% of the claims, making payments to 679,000 people and denying about 121,000 people.
The remaining 2.5% of claims were pending, which amounts to 20,354 people who didn’t know whether they would receive unemployment payments or not.
“With claim volumes so high, the remaining claims that we’re working through still represent a large number of claimants,” Robinson said. “We’re working as fast as we can.”
People who waiting to see if they get benefits continue to report that it’s difficult to get an agent on the phone or an email answered.
Robinson said: “I’m doing the best I can and I can assure you when we hit September and we get to the end of the federal claims, we will have more capacity to get through every issue and answer the calls.”
Klausmeier said she had her own experience being left without answers. She received a check for unemployment that she never sought, apparently caught up in an identity theft scheme. She said she reported the problem to the Department of Labor, but hasn’t gotten any update about how the problem is being handled.
“If I haven’t heard anything, what does the average person, the average constituent, hear?” she asked.
Lawmakers also took Robinson and her staff to task for what they see as a slow response to laws that they passed earlier this year intended to improve and reform the unemployment system. A progress report submitted by the Department of Labor was “underwhelming,” according to Wilson. Del. Ned Carey, co-chair of the oversight committee, said he was “disappointed, disheartened” with the report.
Robinson said her department has been challenged in lining up consultants to help and finding money to pay for them. Consultants are needed for a study of the system and how to improve it; the report is due Dec. 1.
Carey, an Anne Arundel County Democrat, responded that lawmakers could help with the funding issue, if only Robinson raised it with them earlier. Carey said it seemed like there’s been a breakdown in communication between the Department of Labor and lawmakers.
“If I sound like I’m frustrated, I am,” Carey said, “because we continue to talk about the same things over and over.”