It has been a year since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic and the state has made significant improvements to its unemployment call centers, such as beefing up staff and expanding hours of operation. But substantial problems remain as many Marylanders have been waiting months to receive their benefits and some are even unable to get a claims representative on the phone.
Several Facebook support groups started by Maryland residents have shared advice on how to handle the bureaucratic nightmare that taxpayers have been facing as many try to get someone — anyone — to pick up a phone and help them navigate through the system.
Frustrated taxpayers have reached out to MarylandReporter.com and others have shared their experience on the Facebook group known as Maryland DIY – REAL ANSWERS, where some said they have been waiting for months to get people on the phone.
Sheryl McCann posted that it took her four “months of constant calling all the numbers. I think it’s the luck of the draw” before someone decided to answer the phone.
Hope Daley put it this way: “You have to make calling them, a full-time job. I spent 8 hours calling over and over again until I was finally able to get through.”
Last year on the support group page, others talked of desperate fears of homelessness. One woman in May said she was at the point that her family will have to be living out of their car with their three boys because they can’t get their check. While evictions have been suspended during Covid-19, more landlords are finding legal loopholes to do just that because tenants don’t always know their rights. It’s not known if that person did become homeless.
The support groups suggest contacting state and congressional legislators, which in turn those politicians end up calling the labor department to try to expedite the claim. Those legislators then tell those claimants that someone from the unemployment office will contact them in about three to five weeks, but that does not always take place.
Others have just posted frustrations on their own social media pages such as Comptroller Peter Franchot’s Director of Communications Susan Dobbs O’Brien:
Last night, I spent hours at home answering my work phone, text messages and social media messages – mostly from people…
MarylandReporter.com spent an entire week calling daily on the hour to get through. No one picked up. The phone gets disconnected after going through a series of options, and eventually, a recorded message says no one is available to answer the call.
In other cases, people have told MarylandReporter.com they have been waiting since July to get a check. Another person was waiting since October to get a check. Eventually she received a check last month but wondered why the state didn’t provide interest payments because it failed to deliver a check within a timely period — usually within three weeks of filing, as federal guidelines say.
The problem that still exists a year later has now turned into a blame game with no one taking responsibility. Some blame Gov. Larry Hogan, others blame the General Assembly, and some even blame claimants for not filling out the online application on the BEACON portal correctly.
Those who have been waiting have seen some relief recently. The administration’s $1 billion Relief Act provides a one-time $1,000 payment for those whose claims have been pending for more than 30 days but offers no additional funds for those who waited months and finally did get a check.
The $1,000 per claimant was expected to hit the pockets of at least 32,000 Marylanders stuck in what Sen. Kathy Klausmeier of Baltimore County calls “adjudication purgatory” where their claims were being held up for some reason, other than fraud.
As of Friday, 27,100 people in unemployment purgatory received checks from the Relief Act.
Broken system, broken promises
Since last spring Hogan has promised to fix the state’s unemployment system. It has not been fixed, according to claimants and legislators.
At a Zoom press conference on Friday, Maryland Reporter.com asked Senate President Bill Ferguson whether the situation with unemployment benefits has gotten better.
Less calls, more calls?
“Unfortunately, we’ve seen the opposite,” he said. “Over the last week, we’ve seen the number of calls to our office of people who are at their wits end skyrocket…In the week to 10 days, there has been a shift. Something has occurred that has created a great deal of angst. What we’re hearing is increased frustration; just when we thought we were sort of getting to the light at the end of the tunnel. Unfortunately, the unemployment system continues to be this enormous, enormous challenge.”
Labor Secretary Tiffany Robinson had told legislators many of those outstanding complaints deal with fraud, but Ferguson said they found that not to be true. “They weren’t,” Ferguson said.
On March 2, the Senate Finance Committee held a two-hour hearing on seven different bills related to unemployment, including the package recommended by the Joint Committee on Unemployment Oversight, chaired in the Senate by Klausmeier.
“All of our offices have been inundated with unemployment claims,” Klausmeier said.
“I just want someone to answer the phone over there.”… “I think it’s just lack of help,” she said.
Klausmeier said the past year has “exposed great weaknesses in our unemployment program” and has “proven a number of changes need to be made.”
The bottom line, she said, “We still hear horror stories.”
Finance Chair Delores Kelley said the legislative staff have had to handle so many calls it like they were working for the department.
“It has been most frustrating,” she said.
Hogan administration deflects blame to legislators
Hogan’s communications director, Michael Ricci, defended the state’s record. In an email, he told MarylandReporter.com that the state has paid more than $10 billion in unemployment benefits and that 96% of claims have been resolved. That leaves about 40,000 cases unresolved, which is about the size of the city of Hagerstown.
Ricci said that since the start of the pandemic the Department of Labor’s Division of Unemployment Insurance has hired more than 1,000 additional employees to address the unprecedented number of claims that have been filed. He said the additional employees were hired through a contract with two vendors — Accenture and Alorica.
“As of February, 713 call center agents have been hired through Accenture. The contract with Accenture adds up to 1,275 staff for up to $102.1 million. As of February, over 230 adjudicators have been hired through Alorica. The contract with Alorica adds up to 675 staff for up to $70.9 million. Both contracts were approved by the Board of Public Works this week — nearly a year after the pandemic hit the state.
“These contractual employees hired through the vendors have been paid using 100% federal funding, not state funding,” Ricci said.
Representatives from Accenture declined to comment and referred MarylandReporter.com to a spokesperson for the state’s Department of Labor. Alorica did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
Ricci said 100 employees were also hired through funds the state received from the federal government and that more employees are being hired each week.
He attributed many of the ongoing problems to the department’s “complex adjudication process that prevents the department from efficiently resolving claims.”
One problem is that every four months if someone has not received a check, the claim might be placed inactive and the claimant then has to go through the process again, according to an agent who handles claims.
Under the U.S. Department of Labor Federal Guidelines set in 2005, 87% of payments are supposed to be made within three weeks of filing but there is no penalty for failing to do that.
Ricci said that only the General Assembly can fix the overall problem — not Hogan.
Hello, is anyone there?
But that still does not address the issue of why people can’t get someone on the phone to help navigate through the system. When asked what advice Ricci would offer to Marylanders who are still unable to get a claims representative on the phone, he asked for an example of such problems and was forwarded two emails by claimants expressing frustration with the process.
Ricci responded by intimating that he had resolved one of the claimant’s issues and by relaying that the other claimant had not filed a proper claim. Ricci declined to offer any advice as to what the bulk of claimants stuck in the adjudication process should do except blaming claimants for failing to “give reporters all the facts” before sharing their stories with news outlets.
MarylandReporter.com confirmed that one of the claimants’ issues was resolved. However, the claimant relayed that both her son and husband are now having problems similar to what she experienced, namely frozen accounts and delayed payments.
The claimant said Labor Secretary Tiffany Robinson should be fired.
“She was of no help. I explained to her that my bank account was still frozen. She told me that my issue was with the bank and I needed to contact them because unemployment did what they had to do knowing they had not even sent the bank my verification so the bank could lift the hold. No. Someone who cares needs to replace her! Immediately.”
Robinson’s job performance has frustrated Marylanders so much that a petition has started on change.0rg demanding the resignation of the labor secretary. So far about 1,900 people have signed it.
The petition says: “The citizens of Maryland demand the resignation of Maryland Department of Labor Secretary Tiffany P. Robinson. The Maryland Unemployment Insurance program is broken. Hundreds of thousands of Marylanders have been negatively affected by her incompetence and failure to properly lead the Maryland Division of Unemployment Insurance during this pandemic. The Beacon web portal continues to be an abysmal failure with incorrect, often changing data, the absence of weekly Webcerts, the phone lines are constantly busy, and thousands of Marylanders still have not been paid their Pandemic Unemployment Assistance monies…”
Robinson was not always the focus of such fierce criticism. As recently as November lawmakers on both sides of the aisle told MarylandReporter.com that they believed she was doing the best job she possibly could under very difficult circumstances.
Sen. Cory McCray, D-Baltimore City, said problems with the unemployment system are representative of a failure to take decisive leadership.
“It is very frustrating that no one from Labor Secretary Tiffany Robinson to the governor’s office has taken leadership on this issue. And it has taken longer than 12 months. I understand two months. I understand maybe three months. But it should not take 12 months to resolve this issue.”
McCray sits on the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee, which is one of the committees that has jurisdiction over the state’s Division of Unemployment Insurance. McCray said that problems with the unemployment system have become so pervasive that they now occupy about a quarter of his staff’s time on constituent service issues.
McCray urged Marylanders who are having trouble with the unemployment system to contact his office. He said his office is in constant contact with the Department of Labor. McCray said that when his office receives emails from outside of his district that they make a point of forwarding the emails to the office of the appropriate senator or delegate.
McCray said that communication between his office and the department have notably improved since the department assigned a new liaison to work with members of the General Assembly on issues related to unemployment claims.
U.S. Rep. Anthony Brown, D-Md., told MarylandReporter.com in a statement that the Hogan administration is to blame for the backlog in claims.
“Maryland has consistently been one of the slowest states in the country to get benefits to its unemployed residents. It’s been nearly a year, and the Hogan Administration still hasn’t fixed many of these issues. With Congress set to expand and strengthen unemployment insurance as part of the American Rescue Plan it is imperative that the state steps up to the challenge in order to get assistance to those in need.”
Len Lazarick contributed to this story.