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Data Show Maryland Among Slowest States for Unemployment Benefits

Like other states, Maryland struggled during the COVID-19 pandemic to make initial unemployment claims within three weeks, a federal benchmark for timeliness. Photo by Danielle E. Gaines.

Federal data show that Maryland was among the slowest states to get unemployment benefits to claimants in October – but state officials say the seemingly long wait times aren’t what they seem.

Under a federal standard, states need to get unemployment payments out within three weeks for 87% of applicants. But a recent analysis by Pew’s Stateline shows that most states are falling short of that standard, with Maryland being the third lowest in the nation.

Just 27.9% of Maryland’s payments went out to applicants within three weeks, according to federal data. Only South Dakota and Kentucky had lower rates, at 18.8% and 27.1% respectively, according to Stateline. 

Like other states, Maryland’s three-week payment rate fell throughout the year as an unprecedented number of unemployment claims were filed amid COVID-19 shutdowns. More than 97% of filers received payment within 21 days in March; that figure plummeted to a yearly low of 14.1 percent in June.

But Fallon E. Pearre, a spokeswoman for the Maryland Department of Labor, said in an email that the three-week timeliness rate doesn’t paint a full picture of how long it takes to get Marylanders unemployment benefits.

She said Marylanders can backdate their claim, leading to discrepancies in the data. Benefits are backdated to the date claimants become unemployed, Pearre said, not when their claim was processed.

“The backdating of both regular UI and CARES Act claims allows a claimant to receive all benefits they are entitled to back to their earliest date of eligibility,” Pearre said. “However, this impacts the timeliness reported to USDOL because the ‘clock’ starts counting based on the effective date of the claim, not the date the claim is actually filed. If an eligible claimant backdates their claim by 3 weeks, then the day that their claim is filed will already be greater than 21 days for first pay timeliness, even if paid immediately.”

Maryland doesn’t have a one-week waiting period for unemployment benefits like other states do, Pearre said, noting that claimants are eligible for benefits the day after they become unemployed. She said many of the state’s claimants received a “lump sum on their debit card as their first payment, which includes all benefits owed dating back to their earliest date of eligibility.”

She added that some figures, like how quickly the Maryland Department of Labor is getting some emergency pandemic benefits out, aren’t included in the timeliness rate.

Many Marylanders had lengthy waits for unemployment benefits in the early days of the pandemic when a flood of new claims crashed the state’s unemployment system. Some reported weeks-long waits to even file a complaint due to technical issues earlier this year.

The state’s unemployment system was quickly overwhelmed by a flood of unemployment claims when businesses were forced to shutter in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. Officials were in the middle of overhauling the state’s aging unemployment system software when the pandemic hit, and rushed to build a new system for claimants in April.

That new system, BEACON One-Stop, crashed within an hour of its debut as an unprecedented amount of users tried to get benefits. Officials have since launched a mobile application that nearly 170,000 users had downloaded by the end of October, according to a Department of Labor press release.

Maryland has sent out more than $8.2 billion in state and federal unemployment benefits since March, Pearre said. The state has processed 781,016 of the complete claims that were filed between March 9 and Nov. 28, or about 94.6%. Roughly 78% of those claimants received benefit payments, Pierre said, while another 16.5% were denied for “not meeting state or federal program requirements.”

New unemployment claims in Maryland have been gradually declining throughout November, state data shows. There were 12,790 new initial unemployment claims for the week ending on Nov. 28, down from 18,916 the week prior.

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Data Show Maryland Among Slowest States for Unemployment Benefits