Labor Secretary: Unemployment Claim Processing Improving, Updates Coming

Maryland Labor Secretary Tiffany P. Robinson

Maryland will likely roll out an updated unemployment filing system in the fall after claimants spent weeks waiting for benefits earlier this year in the midst of the global pandemic.

The state’s unemployment system software, which debuted in 1998, was in the midst of a federally funded modernization when the COVID-19 pandemic began, Maryland Secretary of Labor Tiffany P. Robinson told lawmakers Tuesday.

“If the pandemic had hit us potentially six months after than we did, we might have launched this project and be in a different place,” Robinson said during a virtual meeting of the legislature’s Joint Committee on Cybersecurity, Information Technology and Biotechnology.

Robinson told legislators that the state doled out more than $3 billion in regular and emergency federal unemployment insurance benefits between March 9 and June 27. The state’s Department of Labor received 624,978 complete claims during that time and more than 96% of those have been processed. About 78% of processed claims have been approved, she said.

Maryland’s unemployment benefits system was overwhelmed with an unprecedented number of claims in the early days of the pandemic, and that led to glitches, Robinson said.

The department rushed to build a new system, BEACON One-Stop, to dole out federal unemployment benefits after thousands lost jobs due to the pandemic. That system went online in late April, but quickly crashed under the unprecedented volume of users seeking benefits.

Lawmakers heard horror stories this spring from claimants who waited weeks for benefits as the state struggled to keep up with the number of unemployment claims. In a marathon  Senate Budget & Taxation and Finance committee meeting in May, nearly 200 people recounted their struggles to get unemployment compensation payments.

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

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

Unemployment claims skyrocketed in Maryland and across the United States as businesses laid off workers due to coronavirus-related shutdowns. More than 200,000 new unemployment claims were filed in Maryland in June alone.

Robinson emphasized that, even as the number of new unemployment claims decline, the system is still seeing between 40,000 and 60,000 new claims a week. She said her department has seen more new unemployment claims in the past three months than in the last three years combined.

Robinson said the system’s initial problems were because it did not have enough capacity to handle hundreds of thousands of users flooding the website with unemployment claims. Many of those issues have since been solved, she said, and the state also has increased capacity for its call-in system for claims. That system once had a maximum capacity of 168 users, and can now accommodate more than 500.

She said the Department of Labor also hopes to roll out a mobile app to handle unemployment claims later this year.

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