Former U.S. Education Secretary and Democratic gubernatorial candidate John King Jr. said state Labor Secretary Tiffany Robinson should resign from office for having mismanaged Maryland’s unemployment insurance system.
More than 15 months into the pandemic and with full recovery on the horizon, tens of thousands of Marylanders are still waiting to receive the benefits that they long ago applied for. Some of the claims are stuck adjudication and have been flagged as potentially fraudulent, while others were simply never processed. And that has led to many claimants having had to start the application process all over again.
King follows in the footsteps of Democrats in the House of Delegates who wrote to Gov. Larry Hogan to urge him to fire Robinson.
“It is certainly a debacle. She should step down. But the larger question is: When is the governor going to come to his senses on how we deal with unemployment in this state?,” King told MarylandReporter.com at a Democratic event that was held in Bowie on Sunday.
King added: “It is a huge mistake to try to cut people’s benefits, as the courts have agreed. And it has been a disaster that people have had to wait so long to get their benefits.”
However, King emphasized that he believes Hogan is just as responsible as Robinson for the debacle.
“I don’t think you can just hold the secretary responsible, but ultimately the governor is responsible.”
Fellow Democratic gubernatorial candidates Comptroller Peter Franchot and former DNC chair Tom Perez on Sunday also blasted Robinson’s stewardship of the state’s unemployment insurance system. However, they stopped short of calling for the secretary’s resignation.
“That is up to the governor,” Franchot said. “But his (Hogan’s) responsibility is, if he can, land the plane, fix it, and get it back up in the air again.”
However, Franchot said achieving that task would be “almost impossible” under the present circumstances.
The best solution to the problem is to have new leadership in the governor’s office, Franchot said.
“Nobody seems to be able to answer the phone at the Department of Labor. And the claims that they are processing are all mixed up and confused…What we need to do is get someone who is the next governor who is steady, who is experienced, who is competent, who can do the little things, the basic things, and that will set us up for a much better environment.”
Perez, who served as state labor secretary under Gov. Martin O’Malley, attributed Robinson’s shortcomings to Hogan’s “colossal failure of leadership.”
Perez hammered his point home.
“This is a solvable problem. Why is it that when you apply for Obamacare, which requires proof of identity, proof of income, proof of immigration status-you can get approved in 30 minutes? And now, with the same requirements, it is taking (UI claims) 7 months. They have failed to govern.”
Perez said Robinson has been an “abject failure” and deserves an “F-” grade on her handling of the state’s UI system.
Perez noted that Robinson’s departure is rather unlikely. And he instead, like Franchot, emphasized the importance of a change of leadership in the governor’s office.
“We need a labor secretary who will get the job done. But more importantly, we need a governor who from Day 1, when you have a crisis, will roll up his sleeves and solve the problem.”
But not everyone blasted Robinson.
Sen. J.B. Jennings, R-Baltimore and Harford, defended the secretary, saying the pandemic put the department in a near-impossible position due to the unprecedented number of claims being filed.
Jennings sits on the Finance Committee, which has partial jurisdiction over unemployment issues. The senator said Robinson “inherited” an “overloaded” system in which claims went up “exponentially.”
Jennings said that although the department’s communication with lawmakers was initially “not great,” that that problem has since “cleared up.”
As for software problems with the UI system, Jennings said that that problem occurred largely because there was “no time to beta test it” prior to the pandemic.
A spokesperson for the Maryland Department of Labor did not respond to a request for comment by the deadline for this story.