Maryland lawmakers on Tuesday heard stories of despair and frustration from constituents who experienced trouble filing for unemployment insurance benefits on the state’s website.
The number of claims filed has skyrocketed since restrictions aimed at preventing the spread of the coronavirus were first implemented in mid-March. The restrictions shuttered many businesses statewide and resulted in hundreds of thousands of workers in Maryland being furloughed or laid off.
“My first time calling in I waited about two hours. When I got into the call queue it said there were 33 people ahead of me,” Bliss Martin said at a joint public hearing before the Senate Budget and Taxation and the Finance committees that was held on the virtual meeting site Zoom. “And, so, I finally spoke to someone. She said the disqualification is from a very long time ago from a different employer…so she lifted it. She also said that there were a lot of people with the same problem. They had disqualifications from old accounts.”
Martin said it took about 22 calls to get the disqualification reversed. She received two benefit payments and then the payments stopped. Martin said she made “thousands and thousands of calls” to multiple offices of the Department of Labor’s Unemployment Insurance Division to inquire about the problem but was unable to get through to a claims representative.
She was about to give up but then decided to join a Facebook group in which claimants share their experiences with the process. Martin said someone in the group shared a series of emails that had led to their problem being resolved. She subsequently sent “hundreds and hundreds” of emails to the department and that that resulted in a phone call on Monday that resolved her problem.
“It was horrible. It has not been an easy process. But I’m thankful that it was fixed even though I had to go through hell for it to happen,” she said.
Beth Bell had a similar experience with the call center. She said “the phone lines are really pretty impossible to get through — you can call thousands and thousands of times and be unable to get through. If you do get through one of them, you’ll end up in a circle and then get disconnected. It’s soul-crushing.”
Bell said the experience prompted her to join a Facebook group for claimants. Bell clarified that it was not the same Facebook group Martin joined. Bell said the two groups collectively have 20,000 members.
Prior to the hearing, Labor Secretary Tiffany Robinson defended the department’s handling of claims. Robinson noted that since the pandemic began in mid-March, the state has paid 327,649 claims and that 90% of claimants received their first payment within 21 days of applying.
“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 in a statement. “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.”
Robinson is scheduled to testify before the House of Delegates’ Economic Matters Committee at 2 p.m EDT Wednesday.
On April 24, the state introduced a new one-stop online filing system called BEACON. The new site was designed to help rectify complaints related to a backlog in claims and excessive wait times on the phone for would-be filers. The site also was designed to accommodate applicants for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, who were previously ineligible for benefits either because they were not a staff employee or because they had an insufficient work history. PUA applicants include independent contractors, self-employed workers, sole proprietors and gig workers.
But BEACON’s debut was nothing short of a disaster; the site crashed within an hour due to the overwhelming volume of people trying to apply and file claims. Although the site went back up shortly thereafter, many users complained that they still could not access it and those who were able to do so complained that it often locked up. A tweaked site a few days later assigned filers in a virtual queue that was supposed to resolve extended wait times by telling filers how many people are ahead of them and then giving them a 10-minute window to start their application. But delays persisted and could extend over an hour, and a filer could wait behind tens of thousands of others.
More than 1,100 people signed up to testify for Tuesday’s nine-hour hearing, according to a press release sent on Monday. The first 270 people who signed up were given permission to testify live. The rest were invited to submit video testimony. The hearing started at 1 p.m. EDT and continued all afternoon. After a dinner break, the hearing resumed at 8 p.m. EDT and ended at 10:17 p.m.