Democratic leaders of General Assembly Thursday unveiled the framework of a broad legislative package aimed at reforming the state’s unemployment insurance system, which has been bombarded with complaints for failing to take care of the unemployed in a timely manner.
The legislation comes as thousands of Marylanders have been waiting for months to be approved for benefits and at a time when call center waits are so extensive that many have simply given up on trying to get a representative on the phone.
”For the last ten months, we have been in a crisis in our state when it comes to unemployment insurance,” Senate President Bill Ferguson said at a virtual news conference. “This legislative package will make certain that Marylanders experience better customer service, faster response times, and will prepare the Department to make certain this crisis never occurs again.”
House Speaker Adrienne Jones echoed similar sentiments.
“Legislators and staff of both parties have spent the year trying to get thousands of desperate constituents answers on their UI claims. We’ve seen the dysfunction up close. We’re going to help unemployed Marylanders right away and chart a new vision for our UI system so we’re prepared for future challenges.”
Del. Ned Carey, Chair of the Joint Committee on Unemployment Insurance Oversight, hammered the point home.
“The pandemic has shown us that the current unemployment system was not prepared for this pandemic or this emergency situation. There was not a plan in place to ramp up services and infrastructure to deal with the increased call volumes that we have experienced. There was no plan in place to deal with the long-term repercussions for the fund and for programs moving forward…It’s failed. And it needs to be better. And we need to do better.”
The legislation includes both short and long-term solutions for the state’s unemployment insurance system. They include: allowing benefits to be received by direct deposit, making sure call centers have sufficient personnel, requiring caller ID for center calls to claimants, establishing new and improved standards for both claims adjudication and response times, allowing Marylanders to work limited hours while receiving benefits, aiding struggling businesses in subsidizing the cost of benefits, and creating disaster protocol to make it easier for call centers to beef up staff at a quicker pace.
The legislation consists of multiple bills and is expected to be introduced next week.
The Hogan administration claimed it has taken certain steps aimed at improving the state’s unemployment insurance system. They include hiring more call center staff and expanding call center operations to include service on weekends. However, many people continue to complain that no one answers the phones, and Facebook support groups are littered with criticism of the call center and the Hogan administration. Others have been waiting several months to get a check, which has forced some to lose their cars, and homes because they could not make payments without the state money.
State representatives have been besieged with complaints, and when they reach out, they are told that an agent will call the unemployed person within five weeks, but some claim those calls never come.
The Maryland Department Labor estimated in November that it had paid about 95% of the completed unemployment claims it had received since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic and that about 80% of those claims had been paid.
But even if those numbers are accurate that still means that tens of thousands of Marylanders are still waiting for benefits they applied for months ago.
Gov. Hogan’s communications director, Michael Ricci, pushed back against claims that the state’s unemployment insurance system is broken.
“Maryland has one of the strongest unemployment systems in the country, consistently resolving more than 95 percent of claims throughout the pandemic and aggressively blocking fraud at every turn.”
Ricci slammed the Democrats’ proposal to reform the system.
“What is being proposed today is a band-aid and not even close to a real and permanent fix. It falls so far short of what people need right now. It does not address the root problem of having a system that operates completely differently in resolving cases from 46 other states. That may be how legislators want it, but they are needlessly keeping far too many people trapped in limbo.”