The Maryland Department of Labor’s distribution of unemployment insurance benefits has been so badly mismanaged that state lawmakers and the state’s entire congressional delegation are still baffled as to why 18 months into the coronavirus pandemic thousands have yet to be paid and some cannot even get a claims representative on the phone despite having made repeated calls.
To be fair, the department has made some significant reforms, such as beefing up staff at call centers and expanding hours of operation, fixing software glitches, and compensating claimants whose claims were stuck in “adjudication purgatory.”
But problems remain and citizens are still in that purgatory, and a pervasive solution has yet to be found. And the extent of the problems raises questions as to whether the department can actually come up with a comprehensive solution even to basic problems such as how do you get someone to answer the phone.
MarylandReporter.com asked several of the state’s lawmakers, many of whom have spent hours upon hours in related oversight hearings and dealing with constituent complaints to identify what steps they believe should be taken to fix the state’s unemployment insurance system.
“We need to go back to an in-person system to prevent the fraudsters and to help the real people who were not being helped,” Del. Rick Impallaria, R-Baltimore and Harford, said. “The people who are actually in need of the service who cannot get through to the computer system. Not everyone is computer literate. And this system is not easy to get through.”
Impallaria, who sits on the Joint Committee on Unemployment Insurance Oversight, said registration for an in-person system could be as simple as going to the drive-through line at the MVA.
“You set an appointment. You show up in person. Because guess who is not showing up to drive-in claim service? The guy committing fraud in China, the guy committing fraud in North Korea, and the guy committing fraud in Russia.”
Impallaria emphasized that the state must first acknowledge that the system is not working before it can actually fix it, and that that must include doing away with the current computer system.
“Whoever has supplied this program should be gotten rid of. They should go back to the old program. And they should set up in-person for as many people as they possibly can.”
Del. Brian Chisholm, R-Anne Arundel, said taking the call centers away from the state and completely outsourcing them to private companies might go a long way toward improving customer service – similar to how Medicare complaints are hanlded.
“Private companies outperform government every day of the week. A private company would probably be able to put in a system that would be much more efficient, effective, and hopefully weed out a lot of fraud…I think a private company with cutting edge technology would be far better at making sure that things are done in a way to ensure that people that are rightfully owed the money get the money, and making sure that someone is answering the calls.”
Sen. Cory McCray, D-Baltimore City, said the “unemployment debacle” is too great a “challenge” for Labor Secretary Tiffany Robinson to “resolve.”
McCray, who sits on the Budget and Taxation Committee, said that while he “appreciates” the department’s good faith attempts at fixing the problem, he nevertheless finds it “disappointing” that over the course of 18 months a “viable solution” has yet to present itself.
Asked to identify what a potential solution might look like, McCray said that that is for the department to decide.
“The ideal solution is where there is a timeframe that meets the appropriate standards for a resolution for our constituents. And that is not happening. No one should have to be in limbo for months at a time when they have paid into a system, and when the time comes when they need that system-the system is not there for them.”
Sen. Johnny Ray Salling, R-Baltimore County, also sits on the Budget and Taxation Committee.
Salling recommended that frustrated claimants seek help from their elected officials in Annapolis.
“They can call their local senator or delegate…If we get all of their information we go directly from our office to the Labor Department. We tell them this is the person. Let’s get this process going. And we have helped out a lot of people.”
Monday, September 6, is the statutory deadline for the expiration of federal unemployment benefits.
After that date, claimants will only be eligible for the UI benefits provided by their respective states.