Officials Hope Virtual Waiting Line, Other Fixes Will Ease Burden on State’s Unemployment Website

Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) at a recent news conference outside the State House. Labor Secretary Tiffany Robinson is on the right, in blue. Executive Office of the Governor photo

Maryland’s Labor secretary said Monday that the state’s launch of a new unemployment benefits website “has clearly fallen short,” but the state was working to increase capacity during an unprecedented surge in new and continuing claims during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The state launched the new BEACON one-stop application website on Friday, but users reported the website crashed within an hour of the unveiling.

“We share your frustration, and are committed to ensuring the site is fully functional and operating without capacity delays as quickly as possible,” Labor Secretary Tiffany P. Robinson wrote in a public letter on Monday. “We understand he dire financial situation that many of our Maryland families, friends and neighbors are facing during the COVID-19 pandemic. We do not take this responsibility lightly.”

The website launched on Friday was designed partly to allow the filing of new claims by independent contractors, gig workers and self-employed Marylanders ― groups of workers who didn’t previously qualify for regular unemployment, but were extended benefits through the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act.

The state hired Sagitec, an outside vendor, to create the website, which officials said could be done more quickly than reprogramming the state’s existing system. However, the new platform was unable to sustain the crush of applicants on Friday and through the weekend, Robinson wrote.

Officials hope a new virtual waiting line and a “gating system” to limit certain types of filings to certain days of the week will help to prevent the system from becoming overloaded in the future.

In a press release late Monday, the Maryland Democratic Party released a screenshot showing more than 133,000 Marylanders already in the virtual waiting line.

“We desperately need a Plan B for our families in need and we are running out of time,” Democratic Chairwoman Yvette Lewis said in a statement.

The party recalled that Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) blasted Democrats in 2014, when the state’s launch of the Health Benefits Exchange was similarly overwhelmed.

“Governor Hogan and his administration are the only ones with the authority and the resources to fix Maryland’s unemployment program by deploying more coders; significantly scaling up call center capacity; and creating digital and analog short-term solutions to circumvent the website’s failure,” Lewis’ statement continued. “We have done all that we can do, and he’s got to take this across the finish line if we want to avoid yet another disaster.”

State officials have said that hundreds of workers have been hired or transferred to the Labor Department or its vendor to help with the influx of unemployment claims since Maryland businesses began closing down by executive order in mid-March.

More than 344,387 Marylanders have filed initial unemployment claims since March 15; that compares to about 215,000 filed in all of 2019.

A Department of Labor spokeswoman said Monday afternoon that more than 179,000 accounts have been created through the new website and that 61,000 new claims had been filed since Friday. More than 138,000 people filed weekly certifications through the website since Friday to continue receiving benefits, the department said.

Automated wait time estimates for filing claims on Monday afternoon were for more than an hour. Through the gating system, the state website will be limited on Sundays and Mondays to people filing weekly claim certifications. On all other days, all claims can be filed.

The state will also take the application offline nightly, between 1 a.m. and 3 a.m., to perform maintenance.

“While the website will be unavailable to customers during those early morning hours, this time was selected to impact the fewest number of claimants possible,” Robinson wrote.

Despite delays, the state has promised that all Marylanders will receive unemployment insurance dating back to their first loss of income, not the day they successfully file a claim.

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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.