One woman said she was down to her last $7. Others have been reduced to couch-surfing with friends or moving back home with their parents. Still others have maxed out credit cards, depleted 401(k) funds meant for retirement or reluctantly gone on food stamps and other public assistance.
Out of work for months now because of the coronavirus pandemic, yet unable to unlock unemployment benefits from Maryland’s overwhelmed system, they are scraping financial bottom.
“I met my mom at the Family Dollar, and she bought me diapers for my daughter,” said Lavaenia Campbell, 23, of Gwynn Oak, who has received neither a paycheck nor unemployment payments since April. “Winter’s coming up, and I don’t have a jacket for her.”
State and federal legislators have grown increasingly impatient as constituents continue to contact them about problems receiving benefits. Complaints have poured in since shortly after the pandemic hit Maryland in March. The elected officials have held hearings and written letters to Gov. Larry Hogan and Maryland Labor Secretary Tiffany Robinson, seeking answers and calling for faster and more transparent processing of claims.
“For many -- too many -- the situation is nothing less than dire,” the Maryland delegation to Congress said in a letter to Robinson this month. “Even strong economic lifelines matter very little if they are not quickly and fully deployed.”
Assurances from state officials, who say they’ve resolved some problems with the unemployment insurance system and continue to work on others, ring hollow for those whose claims remain stalled.
“Hogan’s not not getting paid, and Robinson’s not not getting paid,” said Jennifer Rhine, 46, of Westminster. "If something happened with their check, they would want it fixed right away.”
Robinson said more 91% of claims for unemployment benefits have been processed, while close to 9% -- or about 64,600 people -- were unresolved as of Oct. 3. The backlog is up from this summer when unresolved claims were just under 4%.
The increase is in part because of a recent uptick in new claims, Robinson said. Additionally, those who have exhausted regular and emergency unemployment payments are applying for extended benefits, she said.
“My heart goes out to them,” Robinson said of those suffering financial distress as they await delayed payments. “We are still, seven months later, working around the clock to make sure our clients get every penny they’re entitled to.”
Getting through to speak to someone has been a major source of frustration for claimants who say they call hundreds of time only to click through various options and wind up being told to try calling later. They also say they’re told they need to be interviewed to resolve problems with their claims, and wait weeks and even months to be called.
Robinson said the problem has been one of volume -- the department has processed more than 672,000 claims since March 3 -- and the amount of staff to handle them.
“Our biggest issue remains capacity,” Robinson said.
The labor department and its vendor have been adding staff as quickly as possible, she said. They are in the process of hiring and training 300 additional agents to answer phone calls, Robinson said, with about half of them expected on board by the first week in November.
As existing applicants continue to face problems getting benefits, more are joining their ranks. On Thursday, state labor officials said 30,060 people had filed new claims for jobless benefits the prior week, compared to 15,444 who applied in the week that ended Sept. 26.
Those who have gone without benefits, or the full amount they believe they are due, say the issues holding up their claims seem like they should be easily rectified.
Campbell, a nursing assistant, had to stop working in April when she gave birth about 12 weeks prematurely to her daughter, whose twin did not survive. Campbell had planned to return to her job providing home health care in August, but said her doctor does not want her to risk exposure to COVID until her baby is less vulnerable.
She didn’t file for unemployment until August, initially unclear on how to state her reason for not working, and now thinks the problem with her application stems from having begun her leave with an expected return-to-work date. She’s under threat of eviction, and worries what will happen when measures to protect tenants are lifted.
For someone who has worked since she was in the 9th grade, Campbell said it pained her to apply for and receive food stamps while waiting for unemployment payments.
“I’ve been working all that time and … they can’t even help you,” she said.
I’tavia Carter, 29, of Baltimore, said she accidentally answered a question incorrectly while filing her weekly claim certification last month. Her $176 a week payments were then put on hold, she said.
Carter, who was laid off when the furniture store she worked at closed in the spring, said she’s called repeatedly, gone on live chat and filed a half dozen tickets for service.
After using her previous payments on rent and a BGE bill, she said she was left with just $7. But on Wednesday, $176 suddenly showed up in her account, although three weeks of payments remained missing, she said.
Rhine said her weekly unemployment payments dropped from $430 to less than $200 a few weeks ago, and she has hit one brick wall after another trying to find out what happened. One agent said she had been overpaid in the past, another said it was because she was listed as self-employed.
“I’ve never been self-employed all my life,” said Rhine, who lost her sales job at a marble and granite company in May.
“It’s a simple fix," she said, "but I’ve been on chat and on the phone with two different people at the same time, and I’ve gotten two different answers.”
Her husband still has his job, but with only one income, car payments and other bills are growing, credit cards are maxed out and plans to buy a new house have been dashed.
Rhine has applied for dozens of jobs, but hasn’t found one that can provide the $1,300 a week she’s used to bringing home.
“I just keep putting in applications," she said.
Kathy Klausmeier, a state senator who chairs the unemployment oversight committee, said while the labor department’s efficacy rate has improved substantially, dozens of her constituents are still having problems.
“There have been people who have been trying two months to get through,” the Baltimore County Democrat said.
Klausmeier said the department should have collaborated more with the legislature and made transparent the existing problems with case adjudication. She also faulted Hogan, a Republican, for saying in May that the unemployment website was “completely fixed and functioning very well."
Robinson said she believed the governor was referring not to the entire claims processing system, but to the then new Beacon One-Stop online portal. It crashed on its first day of operation but within several days was “up and running."
“Were there other remaining issues? Yes,” Robinson said.
Federal legislators also have been pressing Robinson for improvements, even as some acknowledge her department has been flooded with an unprecedented number of claims.
“The volume is part of the issue,” said U.S. Sen. Ben Cardin. “But you’ve got to be able to let people know the status of their claims in a reasonable time.”
Cardin, a Democrat, acknowledged that Washington has to do its part for the unemployed. An extra $600 a week in federal unemployment aid expired in July, and a stopgap measure that paid half that amount only provided six weeks of payments in Maryland.
Congress has not replaced either the extra weekly unemployment benefit or the $1,200 stimulus check authorized in the spring, and President Trump has sent mixed signals, even within the same day, about whether he wanted a new measure before the election.
In the meantime, though, the state can and should do a better job getting existing funds to unemployed Marylanders, said Matthew Verghese, communications director for U.S. Rep. Anthony Brown, a Democrat.
Verghese said the state should have ramped up staffing more quickly to speed up payments to people. He said he is particularly troubled by federal statistics showing that Maryland is among the poorest-performing states in getting the first unemployment payment to people within 21 days of applying.
In June, Maryland came in last of all 50 states, with just 14% of applicants receiving their first payment within 21 days. By August, the most recent month for which statistics are available, 35% had started receiving payments within 21 days. The most recent national average is 50%.
Robinson said Maryland’s ranking is skewed by the state allowing people to backdate their claims to when they first became unemployed. Some states don’t allow that, or limit the amount time in which claimants can backdate, she said.
Most states have struggled to keep up with the tens of millions of Americans claiming unemployment benefits after they were thrust out of work by the pandemic and economic slowdown. The process has been hampered by outdated computer systems straining under the volume of claims and the need to accommodate new benefits from federal pandemic relief programs.
Last month, California stopped accepting new applications for two weeks to cope with a backlog of 600,000 claims awaiting processing.
In Oklahoma, labor officials hosted more than a dozen events in June and July where applicants unable to get through on jammed phone lines could come and speak in person to staff.
About 10,000 claims were resolved that way, said Shelley Zumwalt, executive director of the Oklahoma Employment Security Commission.
She attended each and helped process claims, including one from a woman who Zumwalt said told her she had started a Twitter hashtag, “#FireZumwalt,” over frustration with the unemployment insurance system.
“We’re stuck in a tough place with our technology,” Zumwalt said, "but that doesn’t mean we can’t meet you halfway.
Some, including Verghese, say the Maryland department is overly worried about fraudulent claims, freezing accounts as it investigates and seeks additional verification for them.
But Robinson pointed to investigated accounts that turned out to be fraudulent. In July, Hogan announced that the department had uncovered an identity-theft scheme worth hundreds of millions of dollars.
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