ANNAPOLIS, Md. (FOX 5 DC) - Maryland lawmakers and staffers trying to help constituents with unemployment benefits are facing a disturbing reality: having to call the police to check on people they fear could be suicidal.
Lawmakers and staff have called police multiple times requesting welfare checks on people, including on Thursday morning, according to Theresa Goddard, Chief of Staff for Md. Senate Republicans.
“I have never seen our offices so emotionally distraught,” said Goddard.
She said it’s gut wrenching to hear people’s stories and staffers are at a loss for what to tell them. Goddard said staff has dropped off food for people and even volunteered to help process claims for the labor department. They were told the training was too extensive.
Sen. Ben Kramer (D-Montgomery Co.) describes the desperation he heard from a constituent last week.
“(The person said) that for the first time in a number of years they had again started to drink alcohol,” said Kramer. “And then the following day got back to me thanking me so much for my reaching out to try to help them, but they had made peace with their situation.”
Kramer said he was so concerned, he contacted Montgomery Co. police.
Some in Maryland have been waiting for weeks for their unemployment benefits, unable to get through to someone at the labor department. People testified for hours last week and a day later, Labor Secretary Tiffany Robinson told lawmakers the backlog of people waiting for unemployment benefits is over 135,000, and currently, there are just 200 phone lines for people to connect with the labor department.
“I do fault Governor Hogan for the failings of the system,” said Kramer.
FOX 5 has been trying for weeks to speak to Gov. Larry Hogan and Secretary Robinson with countless emails, calls and texts unanswered.
Two weeks ago Hogan dismissed a question about unemployment problems.
”So the unemployment site has been completely fixed for at least 10 days,” Hogan said. “There’s been no wait since last Monday. So the news is a little late catching up.”
“I want to see the governor step up and take ownership of his failures on what is happening with unemployment and share with us how it is he’s going to get it corrected and fixed,” said Kramer.
The union president for labor department employees tells FOX 5 there are currently only 53 workers processing claims. Jason Suggs, President of AFSCME Local 3641, said there has been a 3000% increase in applications
“My co-workers and I have worked extended hours and weekends for the past 3 months to handle the claims and it’s still not enough. We do not have enough staff due to a number of unfilled vacancies over the last six years,” said Suggs in an emailed statement. “Maryland deserves better.”
Kramer said the labor department staff is down almost 30% since Hogan took office.
“And now it is coming home to roost,” he said.
A spokesperson for the state department of health said that from February to March, Maryland’s Helpline saw a 45 percent increase in total calls, a 74 percent increase in chats, and a 408 percent increase in texts.
Maryland's Helpline is available 24/7 to provide support and assistance to anyone who needs it. You can call 211 and select option 1, text your zip code 898-211, or visit 211MD.org