By TRISHA AHMED
Capital News Service
ANNAPOLIS, Md. — The state’s mobile application for unemployment assistance needs better functionality and accessibility, state legislators told Maryland’s Labor Secretary Tiffany Robinson on Thursday.
Since 2020, Robinson and her office — the Maryland Department of Labor — have come under fire for having an overloaded system that for months frustrated thousands of Marylanders trying to get their unemployment claims processed during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Robinson has said that a tidal wave of claims — many fraudulent — overwhelmed her office.
The state uses the free BEACON mobile app, which allows Marylanders on iOS and Android platforms to view their unemployment claim details and weekly benefit amounts.
The Maryland Department of Labor plans to upgrade the app with more information for users about employment, monetary details, dependents and appeals, Robinson said.
But state legislators at the meeting raised more basic concerns about the mobile app.
Marylanders in need of unemployment insurance cannot sign up, submit an initial claim or even upload documents from the app, said Sen. Sarah Elfreth, D-Anne Arundel, Del. Jared Solomon, D-Montgomery, and Sen. Craig Zucker, D-Montgomery.
They described the strains this has had on their constituents and staff members.
“We were receiving a lot of phone calls from constituents who, when they lost their job, lost the only access they had to a computer. Many of them were utilizing the app,” Elfreth said.
“Our offices have become de facto Department of Labor offices over the last year and a half, trying desperately to get our constituents the funding they need to keep a roof over their heads, food on the table,” Elfreth added.
Solomon said that his chief of staff opened up her home to constituents who had needed a computer and scanner to upload documents for unemployment insurance.
“If people don’t have a computer, they can’t sign up … At what point will the mobile app be able to have people sign up?” Zucker asked Robinson.
Robinson responded, “That was not an original intent of the app, simply due to the feedback that we received about how filing an initial claim on the app would not be very user-friendly.”
However, Robinson added, “If this is the feedback that you are hearing, that more customers need the ability to do that on the app, then we will reevaluate … We will certainly research that with our vendor and get back to you.”
The labor department’s ongoing problems with fraudulent unemployment claims have also affected Marylanders’ experiences with the BEACON unemployment system.
“(Unemployment benefits) cases began being closed en masse. Many of them…had been tagged for (potential) fraud,” said Del. Cathi Forbes, D-Baltimore County.
After Forbes’ constituents proved they did not file fraudulent claims, “they all got emails saying their case was being closed. And they never received any money. It was…a tremendous amount of stress on my constituents,” Forbes said.
Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, the state’s labor department has tagged 1.7 million unemployment claims for potential fraud and identified 1.5 million of those claims as actually fraudulent, according to Robinson’s presentation on Thursday.
“We certainly have implemented all kinds of security features to combat fraud during this pandemic,” Robinson said.
The state’s labor department received over 2.9 million new unemployment claims since the beginning of COVID-19 and paid over $14 billion to Marylanders in state and federal benefits, according to Robinson’s presentation.
Capital News Service reported in March that, according to Robinson, the state’s Department of Labor was unprepared for the exponential increase in unemployment claims during the pandemic. The unpreparedness stemmed from the department’s understaffing and hundreds of millions of dollars in fraudulent claims.
This resulted in months-long delays for people in precarious financial situations waiting on unemployment assistance.
Robinson said on Thursday that the state’s labor department has added over 2,000 new unemployment insurance employees as call center representatives, adjudicators and state staff.
In 2020, Maryland’s unemployment rate jumped to 9% in April from 3.5% in March, after the World Health Organization declared the COVID-19 outbreak a global pandemic, and Gov. Larry Hogan, R, ordered all non-essential businesses in the state to close.
As the pandemic continued and Maryland’s delivery of unemployment assistance stalled, state and federal legislators wrote letters to Hogan and Robinson — urging the pair to deliver unemployment insurance benefits to Marylanders more quickly.
Most recently, more than 185,000 people in Maryland were unemployed in September. The state’s unemployment rate was 5.9%, exceeding the national unemployment rate of 4.8%.