Two members of the Senate Finance Committee who sit on opposites side of the aisle said Labor Secretary Tiffany Robinson has done a fairly good job of overseeing the department’s processing of the unprecedented number of unemployment claims even though thousands of residents are still waiting months for their first check.
That’s because a majority of the cases have been processed while 5% are still under review, according to state records. Complaints relating to website glitches and payment delays have been largely resolved in most cases, according to officials – although many on the Facebook support group page dedicated to unemployed workers appear to dispute this.
State records obtained by MarylandReporter.com show that the Maryland Department of Labor has processed about 95% of the completed unemployment claims it has received since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic in mid-March and about 80% of those claims have been paid.
Broken down numerically, the department has processed 760,954 claims and has paid 640,316 claims. Nearly 121,000 claims (15%) were denied for failure to meet state and federal program requirements. More than 42,000 claims are pending (5.2%), most of which have been disputed and are subject to further investigation. By law, those claims cannot be processed until the investigation is completed. As of the week that ended on Saturday, Nov. 7, the department has paid $7,946,483,130 in state and federal benefits.
The Finance Committee is one of several committees that has jurisdiction over the department’s Division of Unemployment Insurance. In May, the Finance and Budget and Taxation committees held a nine-hour virtual hearing in which testimony was heard from thousands of witnesses who relayed problems they experienced while filing for benefits.
“I think we are in a better place at least it would appear now-in a much better place than we were some months ago when we had over two-thousand witnesses who signed up to testify about delays. No doubt about it,” said Vice-Chair Sen. Brian Feldman (D-Montgomery).
Feldman said that in recent weeks his office has seen a decline in complaints about payment delays.
“There are less claims coming in. Again, we saw this past week marked six straight weeks of fewer claims. Now, that could go back with the spike in COVID cases and more potential shutdowns. We could go backward a little bit in terms of an uptick in claims if the economy starts to slow.”
Feldman said Robinson deserves a degree of credit for making the best of a difficult situation.
“I’m reluctant to be too hard on her because this was an unprecedented situation. And the other thing I don’t think is fully appreciated is that the state labor departments are subject to the various changes made by their federal counterparts. Every time the federal government makes a change in their rules our local state departments of labor have to then make changes in software…And I think it’s been really difficult not just for Secretary Robinson but for all state labor departments around the country.”
However, Feldman said did say that the department experienced “hiccups” getting the ball rolling and that “too much” was promised, “too early.”
Sen. J.B. Jennings (R-Baltimore and Harford) said his office is in frequent contact with Robinson and her staff and that the secretary is working extremely hard to address the backlog in claims.
“I know the secretary is working 14 to 15 hours a day trying to get these cases taken care of. She is doing her best with the abilities that she has…the secretary is in a tough spot. There’s no doubt.”
Jennings said he understands why people are angry with Robinson but that that anger should be taken into its proper context.
“I get it. Don’t pay her (facetious). I know that agency is working very hard. Do they need more reinforcements? Absolutely…That agency needs more help. It needs more reinforcements.”
But not everybody is willing to wait that long.
And the evidence of that anger and frustration can be seen on the Facebook support group page, where claimants are relaying their experiences with the process both on the department’s page and in the support group pages.
The support group pages collectively have more than 10,000 members.