Surge in Unemployment Could Continue as Programs Expand, Economy Remains Closed

Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) at a recent State House news conference. Photo by the Executive Office of the Governor.

Maryland’s unemployment figures continued to skyrocket on Thursday, and the figures are expected to continue rising as social-distancing remains in place and additional workers become eligible for unemployment benefits.

More than 108,508 Marylanders filed for first time unemployment claims in the last week, according to the Maryland Department of Labor. In the last three weeks, the state has seen more than 235,000 new claims, more than the total number of jobless claims the state received in all of last year.

According to figures released Thursday, there were more than 6.6 million initial claims filed this week nationwide. More than 16.8 million new claims have been filed across the country in the last three weeks.

In Maryland, the crush of claims has forced the Department of Labor to triple the number of call-takers and expand call center hours. Employees have been pulled from other parts of the Labor Department and other agencies to increase staffing, officials said.

David C. Romans from the Department of Legislative Services told lawmakers on Thursday that employees from a state collection unit have been helping process unemployment claims after Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) announced Maryland won’t pursue bad debts during the state of emergency.

“Every single person that’s not getting handled immediately frustrates the heck out of me, and I can tell you we’re working really hard on it,” Hogan said during a televised town hall jointly hosted by WJLA and WBFF on Thursday afternoon.

The state is receiving about 2,000 calls every hour, Hogan said.

“It’s a huge volume,” the governor said. “It’s a year-and-a-half’s worth of claims in a couple of weeks’ period of time.”

Out-of-work Marylanders have been encouraged to file claims online if at all possible.

Officials said the state has upgraded its online capabilities since claims began surging.

And starting Thursday, the state’s online system was changed to allow people who previously encountered technical difficulties to back-file weekly claim certifications required to continue receiving their benefits.

“Nobody’s going to miss one day’s worth of payment,” Hogan promised during the town hall.

Back payments will also be available to Marylanders newly eligible to apply for unemployment benefits under the federal CARES Act.

That federally-funded Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program temporarily extends unemployment benefits to people who didn’t qualify before, including those who are self-employed, freelancers or independent contractors unable to find work.

While the program is not yet operating in Maryland, the state has established a mailing list so workers can be notified once it is possible to make claims.

Officials in the governor’s office and Labor Department did not respond Thursday to questions about when the program would launch or how many people have signed up for a notification.

The number of workers eligible for the program in Maryland was also not immediately known on Thursday, but their claims could contribute significantly to the state’s jobless numbers in future weeks.

“It’s obvious that the situation is quite dire and becoming more dire with each and every passing day,” economist Anirban Basu, president of the Sage Policy Group in Baltimore, said in an interview Thursday. “…It is likely that the number of initial unemployment claims will be substantial in the weeks ahead.”

He said it’s conceivable that the state’s unemployment rate will be “well above 20%” at its peak.

In some cases, that number may be artificially inflated by employers who have let workers go because their unemployment benefits could be more generous than their current pay ― thanks to a soon-to-be-implemented $600 additional weekly payment that’s also federally funded by the CARES Act, Basu said.

“Some employers will feel that they’re doing their employees a favor by laying them off,” he said.

That and other dynamics could contribute to a quick rebound in the economy and labor force once the COVID-19 pandemic subsides, but “complete recovery will be elusive for years,” Basu said.

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Danielle E. Gaines
Danielle Gaines most recently worked for Bethesda Beat covering Montgomery County. Previously, she spent six years at The Frederick News-Post as the paper’s principal government and politics reporter for half that time, covering courts and legal affairs before that. She also reported for the now-defunct The Gazette of Politics and Business in Maryland and previously worked as a county government and education reporter at the Merced Sun-Star in California’s Central Valley.