Hundreds to Testify at Senate Hearing About Md. Unemployment System Woes

A Marylander shows she has attempted to call the state's unemployment insurance help line more than 1,900 times.

More than 1,100 people have signed up to testify at a state Senate hearing scheduled for Tuesday on Maryland’s unemployment benefits system, Senate President Bill Ferguson’s office announced on Monday.

The joint hearing is being held by two committees — Budget & Taxation and Finance — and will take place online on Tuesday at 1 p.m. It will be live-streamed on the General Assembly’s YouTube page.

Lawmakers said the large sign-up is a reflection of the frustrations newly-unemployed workers are having accessing jobless benefits.

“It is clear that the problems with the system have not been resolved as the Administration claimed last week,” said Finance Committee Chairwoman Delores G. Kelley (D-Baltimore County) and Budget & Taxation Committee Chairman Guy J. Guzzone (D-Howard) in a statement.

“This is an unprecedented level of interest from Marylanders, and we hope the Governor, [Labor] Secretary [Tiffany] Robinson, and their staff are listening and take appropriate action,” they added. “It is our responsibility to provide an opportunity to elevate these Maryland residents’ voices, and we hope this hearing results in solutions from the Administration.”

Robinson has not been invited to testify on Tuesday, but she has accepted an invitation to brief the House Economic Matters Committee on the unemployment benefits website on Wednesday.

Both hearings will focus on glitches with BEACON One-Stop, the system the state is using to process claims online, as well as the state’s scramble to hire additional personnel to process claims by phone.

The Senate hearing was announced on the heels of Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr.’s claim at a news conference last week that “the unemployment site has been completely fixed for at least ten days.”

“There’s been no wait since at least last Monday,” he added.

Hogan acknowledged that users encountered difficulty at first, but he said Maryland was well ahead of other states, many of whom had unemployment compensation websites crash or they “still haven’t even tried” to develop a web-based system for processing claims. He expressed sympathy for those who had to wait to receive the benefits they were entitled to.

Hogan also noted that changes in federal eligibility have forced the state to reprogram its computer system multiple times.

“Ours is now completely fixed and functioning very well. No wait times,” Hogan told reporters on May 6.

Lawmakers from both parties and unemployed Marylanders told Maryland Matters this weekend that Hogan’s claim is exaggerated.

“I heard that it had been straightened out about two days prior to him making that statement, at best,” said Del. Haven N. Shoemaker Jr. (R-Carroll). “So it’s not my experience that it’s been fixed for 10 days, and frankly I have people that are still having issues with the damn unemployment website — and even more so with the telephone system.”

Shoemaker said one constituent tracked him down at his law firm to convey her exasperation. “From my perspective, that’s unacceptable,” the lawmaker said of the delays. “I’ve heard anecdotally that there are people that are still waiting for benefits from back in March.”

House Economic Matters Chairman Dereck E. Davis (D-Prince George’s) said he is sympathetic to the challenges the state has faced in coping with an unprecedented surge in employment filings.

Nevertheless, he said, lawmakers have been bombarded with complaints.

Workers “can’t get anybody on the phone. They’ve haven’t gotten their checks,” he said. “The system wasn’t designed to handle this kind of volume, but it’s been two months and folks are getting desperate. And it’s our job to deal with that desperation.”

When Hogan ran for governor in 2014, he accused then-Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown (D), his general election opponent, of “weak leadership” for the botched rollout of the state’s Affordable Care Act website.

A Facebook page, “MD Unemployment HELP DURING COVID-19!” has been created by newly-jobless Marylanders to assist in navigating the state’s system. Workers share tips, offer advice and commiserate about their shared circumstance.

One unemployed worker from Baltimore County — who didn’t want his name used because of the sensitive nature of his profession — said Hogan’s claims about the system are “an insult.”

“When the BEACON portal was launched, it was utterly effed up. The page wouldn’t even load,” the man said in an interview. “When Robinson and Hogan say the site is better, that’s actually truthful. … But I know of a lot of people who had benefits coming in and that new site launched, and they don’t get paid anymore.”

Last week the state reported that more than 109,000 residents filed initial claims for unemployment benefits in the week that ended May 2. That number — nearly three times the number of workers who sought first-time benefits the week before — was the most to hit the system at one time since the pandemic began.

Robinson told lawmakers during a briefing last week that when information provided by an employee matches the data provided by his or her last employer, benefits checks are going out quickly.

It’s the more complicated cases that are time-consuming, because they require an “adjudication,” she said.

A woman who recently lost her food service job said she applied on March 19 and has yet to get benefits. She shared a screen shot that showed she had tried to reach the agency by phone more than 1,900 times in a single day.

“My rent is two months behind,” she said. “Food is food stamps, which don’t go very far. … By the middle of the month, I’m struggling. It’s bad. And to me it seems like they don’t care.”

“I’m still hearing from folks that are having issues and they’re having problems,” Shoemaker said. “They’re sitting on hold for 12 or 13 hours at a time. They can’t easily file their certs [certifications] that they’ve engaged in [a search for] gainful employment.”

The Senate committees have scheduled a nine-hour hearing to get feedback from the public.

The first 270 people who signed up will get to address the panels live. The remainder will be invited to submit a short taped video.

On Sunday Guzzone told Maryland Matters the Senate committees made a deliberate decision to hear only from the public.

“The public, and the legislature, have heard from various officials already at the COVID workgroup and multiple times at the governor’s press conferences. This will give citizens the opportunity to share their thoughts about the functioning of the unemployment insurance program.”

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