Labor Secretary Tells Lawmakers: ‘We Continue to Listen to Every Customer’

The House Economic Matters Committee prepares to take testimony from Maryland Labor Secretary Tiffany P. Robinson on Wednesday. Screenshot

The head of the Maryland Department of Labor told state lawmakers on Wednesday that the government has made enormous strides to address the unprecedented surge in unemployment insurance claims — and she pledged to continue efforts to train new staff and fine-tune the technology her agency is using.

But Secretary Tiffany P. Robinson acknowledged, in testimony before the House Economic Matters Committee, that the system and those who need it are still enduring stress because so many residents have lost work.

“Nothing compares to the current spike that we’re experiencing now,” she said. “We find ourselves in very difficult circumstances with COVID-19 and the unprecedented volume of claims.”

Robinson said the state has received more than 494,000 new benefits claims since March 9, a 5,000% increase in the typical caseload the Labor Department handles.

Maryland Labor Secretary Tiffany P. Robinson

Nearly two-thirds of the requests for unemployment compensation have been paid, she told the panel. And 90% of the people who have received money got a check or debit card within three weeks. (The federal standard is for 87% of eligible claimants to be paid within 21 days, she said.)

More than a quarter (27%) of the requests are “pending adjudication,” which typically means a processor must resolve a discrepancy between the data a jobless worker provided and what his or her last employer submitted. Seven percent of benefits requests have been denied.

Robinson acknowledged that the state’s new computer system had serious glitches when it was first deployed, but she stressed that unemployment insurance is “very complex” — and she said it’s been difficult to compress a months-long training for new Labor Department personnel into a matter of weeks, particularly with most staff being forced to work from home.

And even though the agency now has 200 call lines and 250 claims agents, it’s still not sufficient to handle “the hundreds of thousands of calls that are coming in daily.”

She refused to blame the state’s vendor. “The Maryland Department of Labor is ultimately responsible for all of it,” she said. “We contracted with them as our vendor and I will take full responsibility.”

Lawmakers have been deluged with complaints from newly-jobless workers who have struggled to obtain benefits. On Tuesday, the Senate Budget & Taxation and Finance committees heard nearly nine hours of testimony from Marylanders who have encountered problems.

“We continue to improve the system every single day,” said Robinson, who was not invited to the Senate hearing. “We continue to listen to every customer and make improvements based on what we hear.”

Given the challenge many people are having purchasing food and paying their rent, some lawmakers and newly laid-off workers have urged the state to relax eligibility requirements to get funds flowing. “We believe we have waived and relaxed everything that we’re able to waive at this point in time,” Robinson told the House panel.

Maryland is far from alone in struggling to handle the crush of applicants, Robinson said. Some states are only accepting paper applications, some have taken their call centers down rather than attempt to handle the surge in customer-service requests, and others are operating two parallel systems — one for traditional benefits and another for pandemic-specific benefits offered under the federal CARES Act.

“We do still have the only one-stop comprehensive in the country,” she said.

[email protected]

Bruce DePuyt
Bruce DePuyt spent nearly three decades on local television, including 14 years as executive producer and host of News Talk on NewsChannel 8 in the Washington, D.C., area. He has served as reporter, anchor and producer/host of 21 This Week in Montgomery County and as reporter/anchor at NBC affiliate WVIR-TV in Charlottesville, VA. He's a regular contributor to WTOP (103.5 FM) and frequently moderates community and political events.