“An epic failure.” “A complete disaster.” “An absolute joke.”
Many Marylanders used harsh words on Tuesday to describe the state’s much-ballyhooed new system for filing for unemployment benefits.
In a nine-hour virtual hearing that ended shortly after 10 p.m., applicants testified before two Senate committees: Budget and Taxation, and Finance.
“It seems that I’ve fallen through the cracks with the new system,” Mary Rinderle told the lawmakers. “At this point, I am three weeks without a payment. I am at the point where I have to decide: Do I buy medical supplies or pay my mortgage?”
The Department of Labor’s Unemployment Division had a filing process that was cumbersome, inefficient and slow even BEFORE the coronavirus pandemic, according to some people who testified on Tuesday. Starting in March, the division was overwhelmed with phone calls, emails, and an online system with thousands of laid-off and furloughed Maryland workers trying to simultaneously file for unemployment.
The new BEACON one-stop online system was supposed to remedy the problems that the applicants had been experiencing trying to process applications from tens of thousands of employees suddenly laid off due to the coronavirus pandemic. Those applicants include – for the first time – the self-employed, independent contractors and gig workers, as a result of pandemic relief bills that Congress passed on March 27 and signed by President Donald Trump.
The BEACON site launched nearly a month later, on April 24. The state said it needed time to make changes to its system to accommodate the new categories of workers. Those in the added categories waited patiently in March and April, with many regularly checking the former website to see when they could file.
Finally, the launch day arrived. The BEACON site went live at 7 a.m. on April 24 but quickly crashed – overwhelmed by the volume of people trying to gain access. The site went back up within the hour, but was still plagued with intermittent crashes. A few days later, state officials said the site would be overhauled and would operate more efficiently.
“We’re going to hold their feet to the fire to make sure they get all the glitches worked out,” Gov. Larry Hogan said at a news conference that afternoon, referring to the outside vendor who created the site, whom he did not name.
Later that day, a new message on the website said that the vendor was still addressing “minor glitches” but that the site was operable and was being monitored.
Mary Holst, a witness at Tuesday’s hearing, said the state should not have changed vendors for its unemployment website in the middle of a pandemic.
Criticism for governor and Labor secretary
Numerous people said it was disheartening to hear the governor say at a May 6 news conference that “the unemployment website is fixed.” Hogan explained that the state has received seven different sets of rules from the federal government for applicants. “Each time that happens, the website must be updated.”
He added: “I understand the frustration of people but we are performing better than just about anybody in America.”
Rinderle said, “It was very frustrating to hear the governor say on TV that the system had been working for ten days.”
Will Thomas said, “The governor makes jokes with reporters that the system works.”
Michael Rytina said the state should have been more prepared. “Governor Hogan knew that all these people were going to be unemployed.”
Bobbi V. of Annapolis was blunt. “Shame on you for passing the buck, Governor Hogan.”
Others targeted their wrath at Maryland Labor Secretary Tiffany Robinson. Thomas said, “I’m not going to be politically correct or nice,” Thomas said. “Secretary Robinson should resign. She’s an embarrassment.”
Others said Robinson has not been very visible. Thomas said he wishes Robinson “would at least address us. We get automated emails. We haven’t seen her.”
Robinson, who has joined Hogan in at least one news conference since the pandemic began, defended the website. In a statement released before the hearing, she said 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. But she admitted that the sheer number of claims has been challenging.
“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.”
The most common problems
Over and over, witnesses described the same problems to lawmakers:
By far the most common complaint was that people are finding it impossible to reach anyone at the Unemployment Division by email or phone to resolve problems or ask questions about their applications. Many people said they had called hundreds of times a day trying to get through to a call center. Some who were lucky enough to get through said they then were put on hold for hours — then the call suddenly disconnected. Others said they had emailed Labor Department officials and staff, but very few received a response.
Melissa Salazar said the only way she could reach the call center is by using a redial app that is available only on Android phones. She spoke to three people in one day at the call center but none could help her, she said.
“I spent seven hours a day trying to reach someone on the phone,” she said, noting that the situation is very stressful.
She belongs to a Facebook group where frustrated applicants vent and share tips. For one week that she didn’t receive benefits, “I have never been so scared. I have three kids, and if we don’t get unemployment, we don’t eat. The bottom line is: This is not working. “
Michael Ellsworth took a leave of absence from his job at a nursing home; many of those facilities have been hard-hit by COVID-19. He said it took two days before he succeeded in completing his BEACON application on March 29.
“I meet all the parameters,” he said. Needing to speak to someone about his application, he said he made about 700 calls before he finally got through. But then his call was automatically put on hold. After waiting on hold for hours, he said, the call was disconnected. He eventually was notified that he would have to be interviewed by phone because he had taken a leave of absence. He was told it would take about two weeks for the interview.
“I don’t understand why we have to endure this bureaucratic website,” Ellsworth told the lawmakers.
Tammy Jones was one of several mothers who said she had been calling on behalf of an adult child. Her son has lymphoma and has gone seven weeks without any income. In the middle of chemo treatments, he received a letter saying his health insurance would be canceled.
“I will lose everything I have to make sure my children don’t go without, to make sure my grandbabies eat,” she said. Some issues could be resolved in minutes – if only someone at the call center could be reached, she said.
“There should be a better system in place so that people can get called back and get situations resolved,” she told lawmakers.
Michael Rytina echoed those sentiments.: “If you reach someone on the phone, they can fix the problem in two minutes.”
Between the phone inaccessibility and numerous problems with BEACON – which he called “an absolute joke” – Rytina said: “Someone at the Department of Labor should lose their job over this.”
Lisa Rice, a public-school mentor, seemed more understanding – to a point. “I understand the government was not prepared to take on something of this magnitude.” Still, she has been waiting eight weeks to receive a payment. “I called for an hour and forty-five minutes then I finally got through and I was excited…then I was on hold for five hours.” She added: “I have a team of twenty that’s going through the same thing.”
Michelle Straughn said she tried to apply on BEACON but it won’t recognize her Social Security number. She is at a standstill. “There is literally nothing I can do until I speak to someone.”
Numerous people who did successfully reach someone on the phone praised the employees, saying they were helpful and patient.
Some claims from old website did not transfer to BEACON
Many people said they applied on the old website and filed their weekly claims with no issues but when BEACON launched in late April, it had no record of those weekly claims and for which they were still awaiting payment. Robinson has insisted that no matter when people file and get approved, they will receive all the money to which they are entitled retroactively – back to their first day of unemployment.
Mary Steinke said she applied six weeks ago on the former website but it is still unclear if she has been approved. Steinke said she got a message saying she would receive further information but she is still waiting. As instructed, Steinke said she filed claims for the weeks between March 29 and April 24, when BEACON launched. However, “Those weeks never showed up on BEACON,” she lamented. “The uncertainty is difficult.”
BEACON is slow and unpredictable
Applicants could not get into BEACON because it crashed, or they did get in but it took hours to complete an application because the system kept crashing. Also, the application is slow. If you have to navigate to another window to look up some information, when you return to BEACON, it takes you back to the beginning of the application, although it does (fortunately) save your completed information. Between the glitches and the crashes, it can take two to three hours to complete an application, according to many applicants. However, there seemed to be fewer recent complaints about crashes, suggesting that the problem has been resolved for the most part.
Status of application or weekly payment amount is unclear
They were able to complete an application but it was not clear if they will be approved or how much money they will receive. (Applicants usually get about 50% of their regular salary up to a maximum of $430 a week, according to the website. Additional benefits provided by the federal government will pay $600 a week from April 1 to July 31. Several people wondered if the federal payments also will be retroactive.
Lauren Beacham, who is self-employed, said she has closed her business and laid off her staff. Beacham was approved for $176 a week in benefits, but she doesn’t understand why she won’t receive more. She doesn’t know if she will be receiving the federal benefits, either.
Debit card is MIA
Several people reported that they have been waiting for weeks – or in some cases, months – to receive a Bank of America debit card to access their benefits, which is supposed to arrive by mail in 7-10 business days. Several people said they can see online that their card has been loaded with a few weeks of benefits, but they have no way to access the funds without the debit card.
Lowell Casden, who has had a career in IT for 30 years, said April 15 was his last day working on a two-year contract. He applied for unemployment benefits on the old system the next day and “everything went well.” Casden said he has submitted claims for four weeks of benefits. But he hasn’t received his debit card or any money yet. He said the delays are not just affecting the unemployed workers but also the small businesses that are open. He told lawmakers that mom-and-pop businesses are struggling. “Money is not being spent at these businesses,” and many applicants who could be helping to support those businesses don’t have their money yet.
Claim is approved but they are still waiting for money
Their application was approved and they have been filing weekly claims online with no issues but they still haven’t received any money. Some people have been waiting for over two months.
Payment amount is incorrect
Their application was approved and, as instructed, they began filing their weekly claims, but when they finally are paid, they don’t receive all the money to which they believe they are entitled. Or, in some cases, they received too much. Several people said they had received duplicate payments on Tuesday but it was unclear if the second payment was a back payment.
“Today I got a call from someone who got two [payments],” Sen. George Edwards (R-Allegany, Garrett and Washington) said. “Several people received double pay.”
Payments start, then suddenly stop
Their application was approved on the old site and they started receiving benefits – but then the payments abruptly stopped with no explanation.
Patrick Marnell said he applied on the old website on March 21, two days after he lost his job. On April 11, he received a letter saying he would be interviewed by phone on April 16. He was available but no one called him, he said. He received his debit card on April 27 and finally had access to his funds on April 29. But he hasn’t received any money since then.
Sharon Carey said she applied March 17 and received a letter soon thereafter about her phone interview. She said she “finally got all her back pay three weeks ago,” which is when BEACON launched. But Carey said she hasn’t received any payments since then and can’t reach anyone by phone or email. “I was told something went wrong with the Webcert,” referring to the former method by which recipients filed their weekly claim.
Will Thomas said he is halfway through his application and has been feeling very stressed out, he said. “I haven’t slept in two months.” Thomas said that he has Type 2 diabetes – his diabetes supplies cost $950 monthly – and that his blood pressure has shot up to 165/120 since he started his application. (Normal blood pressure is 120/80.)
Thomas wasn’t the only witness to mention how stressful applying for and receiving benefits has been. Nearly every witness emphasized how stressful the entire application process has been.
Numerous people who testified thanked the senators for giving them the opportunity to vent. But almost everyone pleaded for relief.
Mary Holst: “As citizens, we’ve done our part. Maryland, do your part.”
Several witnesses had suggestions for the Unemployment Division about how the process could be improved.
- Michael Rytina urged lawmakers to shift more state employees to the Unemployment Division to help handle the calls. He said the call center should take calls 24 hours a day. (The current extended hours are 7 a.m.-6 p.m. on weekdays and 8 a.m. to noon on Saturdays.)
- Michael Straughn also suggested 24-hour call lines and using direct deposit instead of sending debit cards.
- Melissa Salazar urged the state to add more training sessions for employees.
- Mary Holst said there should be a place on the BEACON site where people can check into previous claims they have filed.
- Will Thomas suggested that the division set up different emails to address specific issues. For example, “If you can’t get a password, email here.”
- Patrick Marnell asked the committees to remove or change the return-to-work date that employers who expect their employees to go back to their jobs must specify on those workers’ unemployment applications. If the return-to-work date changes, the recipients’ payments will automatically stop on that date – even if the employee has not yet gone back to work.
- Timothy Graham, who said he is representing a Facebook group of 45,000 restaurant workers, called for the state to waive the required return-to-work date that employers must specify. Once that date occurs, benefits stop. Graham said he had 800 signatures on a Change.org petition.
- Sandra Harmosky said a lot of questions people have are about process and timing. “Take two of your best phone people and let them answer questions on social media,” she suggested. Harmosky has set up a Facebook page called Maryland Unemployment Coach to give people more information about the application process. Harmosky wrote on Facebook at 5:19 p.m. on Tuesday that she had applied for benefits on April 24 and had seen “no activity,” but her first payment (for three weeks) appeared on her Bank of America debit card – just hours after she testified before the Senate committees and three days before the federal mandate that 90% of the state’s unemployment claims be paid within 21 days. She had set up automatic transfers from the debit card to her checking account. As of Wednesday around 6 a.m., the money was in limbo – having disappeared from the debit card but not yet shown up in her bank account, she said. But she wrote an update just before 9:30 a.m. Thursday saying that the money had finally landed in her account.