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Unexpected change in unemployment system frustrates Marylanders trying to send in weekly claims

Most Sundays, Kendall Price, a former waitress living in Glen Burnie, files her weekly unemployment claim certification online at 12:30 a.m., practically as soon as she can.

But this Sunday, she couldn’t. The button on the state’s unemployment portal that normally led her to the week’s questionnaire was nowhere to be found.

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She had never had a problem with the state’s unemployment system, called BEACON 2.0, but had heard the stories: Some people went months with unresolved claims and frequently called jammed phone lines to no avail.

Staring at her screen Sunday, she thought to herself: “My time has come.”

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She turned to a Maryland unemployment Facebook group, and discovered that several other people were having the same problem. Soon, the group, along with others on social media platforms like Reddit, filled with hundreds of panicked comments.

The state requires claimants to fill out a weekly unemployment questionnaire between Sunday at 12:01 a.m. and Friday at 5 p.m. Failing to do so can result in late payments or the end of aid.

At about 2 p.m., the state Department of Labor posted an update to its Twitter feed, stating that there was no issue with BEACON, but that some enrolled claimants might have to click “Apply for Benefits” on their portal to reapply for aid and then send in their weekly claim.

“Please note that the federal unemployment insurance programs have not ended and there are no issues with the BEACON system. Many claimants are exhausting their benefits and need to reapply per program requirements,” read a tweet from the department.

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In an email sent to unemployment claimants, the Department of Labor wrote:

“If you are not able to file your weekly claim certification this week, please check your BEACON portal to see if you have an ‘Apply for Benefits’ button. If you have this button, there could be several reasons including, but not limited to:

  • “You did not apply for benefits last week,
  • “Your benefit year has expired (52 weeks), or
  • “Your monetary eligibility needs to be redetermined.”

A spokesperson for the Department of Labor declined to elaborate Sunday on information provided in the tweet. Spokespeople for the governor’s office and Sagitec, the vendor behind BEACON 2.0, did not respond to questions.

The fix to Sunday’s problem was far from intuitive, Price said, and left some claimants worried that reapplying could jeopardize their current claim.

Sunday’s confusion worsened an already challenging situation for James Helsel, a 38-year-old Severna Park resident who worked in financial consulting before the pandemic dried up his clientele.

Last week, Gov. Larry Hogan announced that Maryland would terminate pandemic unemployment programs for self-employed workers like Helsel, in addition to a $300 per week unemployment payment coming from the federal government. The programs, which were to last until September, will now end July 3.

“I’ve already been stressed out knowing that ‘Hey, I’ve got four weeks left,’” Helsel said. “Not being able to file, I’m like: ‘Wow, how am I gonna feed the kids this week?”

Helsel said he’s trying to set up a business focused on helping clients repair bad credit, but with an early end to his unemployment aid, he said he may have to find a low-wage job to make ends meet.

“Why would they end it when it’s not costing them anything? It’s fully funded by the federal government,” Helsel said.

Lisa Young, 30, of Hanover said she’s already gone without payments for two weeks due to an issue with direct deposit. She marked direct deposit as her payment method of choice before a deadline set by the state, she said, but still hasn’t received her aid.

“I just feel like it’s a mess within other messes,” she said. “I’m already late for rent because of this.”

Young is hoping to get a job in August when her two children return to school, although it may prove difficult to stay afloat when payments end in early July, she said. Child care for them proved too costly, so she had to stay home while the pandemic kept schools closed. In the meantime, she’s gone back to school in hopes of a higher-paying job.

Price said she worries the site may be overwhelmed by Marylanders eager to submit their forms after the delay. The BEACON 2.0 system might crash, or force claimants into a waiting list, just as it did shortly after its debut last September, Price said.

In the meantime, Helsel, Price and hundreds of others have turned to online groups for solace. And to share tips on how best to solve common problems.

“It’s the old saying: Misery loves company,” Helsel said.

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