ANNAPOLIS, Md. (FOX 5 DC) - Maryland’s labor secretary said Thursday that those who have been waiting the longest for unemployment benefits should finally get paid.
“I hope that in a matter of days I can make an announcement that every claim from March and before has been resolved,” said Md. Labor Secretary Tiffany Robinson.
Robinson said the addition of employees and phone lines will help clear the backlog of nearly 100,000 unemployment claims. There are currently 200 phone lines and Robinson said as soon as Friday, the total will increase to 540. She said there are currently 328 agents taking calls, but that number will be increasing too as the office continues to expand staffing.
“It’s going to help,” said Robinson. “It also has more live connection to the Beacon One Stop so no claimant should ever be told that their issue cannot be resolved while they’re on the phone.”
FOX 5 continues to hear from Marylanders who’ve waited hours on the phone, some calling thousands of times and emailing everyone they can.
“What do you say to those people?” asked FOX 5’s Lindsay Watts.
“It tears at my heart,” said Robinson. “That is not OK and that is what we are working to fix. The additional phone lines are coming very soon-in a matter of hours and days. So we will be able to handle more people by phone.”
At a press conference Wednesday, FOX 5 asked Gov. Larry Hogan about the continuing problems. He said he was frustrated.
“Not all of it is something we can fix though because it’s a federal program,” said Hogan.
“Shouldn’t the governor and you take ownership of the failures here?” asked Watts.
“Well we have paid over $1.6 billion to Maryland claimants,” said Robinson. “We have paid 77% of all requests for payment.”
Some lawmakers and labor department employees say part of the problem is the unemployment division was understaffed to begin with. Budget documents show there were over 500 employees in 2015 and under 400 this year.
”Staffing in general has been a real challenge and I have 10 years with the agency,” said Jason Suggs, an unemployment professional and president of AFSCME Local 3641, the union representing workers.
“The union has been pressing the governor for a while to consider staffing and this pandemic has shown that a lack of staffing makes a situation like this even worse,” said Suggs.
He says he’s never seen such desperation and despair from claimants.
”We take it with us to and we feel it,” said Suggs.
Both the labor department and lawmakers' offices have had to call police to do welfare checks on people they fear could hurt themselves. Robinson said she has also personally received threats.
While Hogan said Wednesday that “a big chunk” of people wouldn’t get paid because they wouldn’t be eligible under federal guidelines, Robinson said 7-10 percent of claims were denied as of last week.
When asked what advice she would give to people waiting on the phones, Robinson said, “I would tell them that if they are eligible for their benefits, it’s coming. I hesitate to ask people to please remain patient. I know this is frustrating for them. It’s equally as frustrating for my department. Never in the history of the Maryland Department of Labor have we experienced volume like this.”
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