Senators Hear Misery of Weeks Waiting to File Unemployment Claims

The Senate Finance and Budget & Taxation committees held a virtual public hearing Tuesday about issues relating to the state's unemployment insurance program. Screenshot

Emails that don’t generate responses.

Multiple online “error” messages.

Constant busy signals.

Callers left on hold for eight to 12 hours, hoping someone answers.

Waiting weeks for benefits.

Promised letters that don’t arrive.

“Help” videos that aren’t helpful.

Two Maryland Senate committees heard those complaints in hundreds of stories told by people who have had difficulty accessing unemployment benefits through the state’s system.

The testimony — offered Tuesday during an eight hour and 50-minute online meeting of the Senate Budget & Taxation and Finance committees — offered a vivid view of the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the state’s workforce.

Many who spoke during the Zoom session appeared on camera, putting a diverse set of human faces on the crisis.

The state’s BEACON One-Stop computer system is struggling under an unprecedented rush of applicants. Also, the state’s Department of Labor has had to adapt to changes in federal rules intended to expand eligibility.

Despite adding staff and extending hours, the state has been unable to keep up.

Most of the close to 200 people who testified summarized difficulties they’ve had getting unemployment compensation payments. Some offered suggestions to improve the system.

“I have been trying to get through to unemployment for weeks now, making numerous calls,” Edward Henderson said. “Every time I go through the system, it just kicks me out.”

“It almost discourages you to try, you try so much,” he added.

Beth Bell, an out-of-work mechanic, called the agency’s phone system “soul-crushing.”

Jackelyn Spetter said she spent 8 hours and 41 minutes on hold and was surprised when a claims helper came on the line, around 8 p.m. “I was so excited, I started to cry, which was very unlike me,” she told the committees.

Spetter said she thinks “the employees are doing the very best they can” under the crush of claims. She was one of several witnesses who offered praise for the claims processors.

The Senate committees did not invite Labor Secretary Tiffany P. Robinson to testify, though lawmakers pledged to relay individual case notes to her. Robinson is scheduled to address the House Economic Matters Committee on Wednesday afternoon.

The Senate hearing was announced on Friday, two days after Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) told reporters that the unemployment claims system had been fixed 10 days earlier. Lawmakers from both parties dismissed that as false. On Thursday, before the hearing was announced, Hogan vetoed several high-profile bills that were priorities for Democrats.

Senate Budget and Taxation Chairman Guy J. Guzzone (D-Howard) said the legislature has a legitimate role to play in overseeing state agencies and in delivering constituent service.

“This is to provide some transparency and understanding about what’s going on out there in real people’s lives, and being able to advocate for those citizens with the governor and other parts of government,” he said.

More than 490,000 Marylanders have filed unemployment claims since mid-March, including a record 109,000 just last week.

Finance Committee Chairwoman Delores G. Kelley (D-Baltimore County) urged the Labor Department to drop its requirement that out-of-work Marylanders “re-certify” every week, a step that could ease the burden on the BEACON system.

“We do owe you the respect that you deserve,” she told the audience at the outset, “to know that we hear you.”

Timothy Graham, an out-of-work bartender who cofounded a Facebook group for jobless Marylanders, said other filing requirements were causing benefits-seekers to make  “thousands of calls over multiple days” to update data that a claims agent could fix “in two minutes.”

“Stop wasting agents’ time and making it more and more impossible for those with more urgent concerns to get the answer they need,” he said.

In a news release distributed just before the hearing, Robinson announced that the state has paid more than 325,000 claims since the pandemic began.

She said that since Saturday, Maryland has paid 56,000 claims under a new federal program, Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, totaling more than $165 million in relief.

“The unprecedented volume of new claims, and constantly changing guidelines from the federal government, have presented a series of challenges, not only for our department, but for unemployment programs across the nation,” Robinson said.

“While we are making progress, there are still many frustrated Marylanders waiting to receive benefits. Please know that we are listening, we know what needs to be improved, and we are focused on getting the job done. We will not be satisfied until every Marylander gets the relief they need and deserve.”

‘This rests at the feet of Gov. Hogan’

Guzzone, Kelley and their colleagues kept the hearing low-key, expressing sympathy with each person who spoke and stating repeatedly that the purpose of the session was to hear from individuals who have struggled, and to help craft solutions for the agency.

The tone changed abruptly about three hours into the hearing when Sen. Benjamin L. Kramer (D-Montgomery) slammed Hogan directly.

Kramer, whose sister Rona is Maryland Secretary of Aging, a member of the governor’s cabinet, called the process “outrageous” and “unacceptable.”

“This rests at the feet of Gov. Hogan,” he said. “It is Gov. Hogan who is at the top of the food chain. It is his administration. And it frustrates me when I hear Gov. Hogan say ‘everything’s fine, we’ve got it all worked out.’”

After Kramer suggested Hogan start answering processing claims himself, he was cut off by Guzzone.

Toward the end of the nearly nine-hour session, Senate President Bill Ferguson (D-Baltimore City), who listened to the entire hearing, said he was “haunted” by the stories the committees heard, particularly from the mothers who were struggling financially.

He said the purpose of the session was “how do we solve the problem,” adding that while he appreciated steps Hogan has taken to improve the system, “apologies… don’t put food on the table.”

In a Facebook post Tuesday, U.S. Rep. Anthony G. Brown (D-Md.) called Hogan’s claim that unemployment filing problems were fixed, “an outrage.”

“When thousands of Marylanders can’t file, can’t get through and are anxiously awaiting their first payments to come in the mail, we are far from any measure of success,” read Brown’s post.

Shortly before the hearing, Hogan’s office announced that, on Wednesday, he will hold a news conference on the reopening the state’s economy. The governor’s remarks will occur at an unusually late hour, 5 p.m., likely about the time that the House committee hearing is wrapping up.

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