The state launched the portal April 24 to deal with a huge surge of claims due to the coronavirus shutdown — more than 385,000 filed in the past six weeks. Maryland’s old system, like many others across the country, was outdated and couldn’t handle the increase in applications.
But the upgraded filing system has repeatedly malfunctioned, sending delays and error messages to laid-off workers across the state. The system goes offline between 1 a.m. and 3 a.m. each day to deal with technical issues.
The launch has been particularly embarrassing for Gov. Larry Hogan (R), who slammed then-Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown (D) during their 2014 gubernatorial race for a similarly troubled rollout of the state’s health insurance exchange.
Brown, now a member of Congress, was the Democratic nominee for governor and had been tasked by then-Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) with overseeing the exchange.
When the exchange opened, people couldn’t log on. After a delay to work out issues, users still couldn’t create accounts, the first step in buying coverage.
In campaign ads, Hogan, who at the time headed his namesake real estate development company, labeled Brown a “weak leader” for his handling of the program. On the debate stage, Hogan accused his Democratic rival of shirking responsibility for the “complete disaster.”
Hogan defeated Brown by a five-point margin in the election, a major upset in a heavily Democratic state.
Now, Brown is criticizing Hogan.
In a letter Brown said he plans to send to the governor on Monday, the congressman writes: “Your administration has clearly not risen to the challenge. The Maryland Department of Labor’s efforts to handle the high volume of claims are not meeting the needs of unemployed Marylanders.”
Brown, whose congressional district is anchored in Prince George’s County, shared the letter with The Washington Post on Saturday.
The state Democratic Party has also taken a jab at Hogan, who has received praise nationally and across the state for his response to the pandemic.
“Marylanders are locked out of their final lifeline — their unemployment benefits,” party chair Yvette Lewis said in a statement Monday. “We desperately need a Plan B for our families in need and we are running out of time.”
Hogan has personally apologized and said he will ensure that the state’s vendor, Sagitec, which was awarded a $49 million contract in 2015 to modernize the unemployment claims system, makes the necessary fixes.
“With all of the economic struggles that people are already going through, they should not have to worry about getting the resources that they need and that they deserve,” the governor said. “The people of Maryland deserve better, and the buck stops with me. So I am going to make sure that they do and that we do whatever it takes to get this straight so that every single Marylander gets every single penny of financial assistance that they deserve.”
Mike Ricci, a spokesman for Hogan, described the Democratic Party’s criticism as a “desperate cry for relevance.”
“Aren’t we all tired of this kind of politics?” he asked.
Bell said she appreciates Hogan’s apology but she just wants the problems fixed.
“I feel like if you are an organization, these are things you should have not so much foreseen but you should have an action plan to deal with it,” she said. “This is about survival.”
Vic Simon, a substitute teacher in Montgomery County, had never filed for unemployment before this year, when the state-ordered shutdown of schools left him without his second income.
After three weeks of initially trying to apply on both the old and the new systems, he has not yet been able to get through.
Each time he has tried, his Social Security number has been rejected.
“I’ve been filing taxes for the last 40 years,” Simon said. “Why would it reject a Social Security number? I’m low-tech, but I feel like their algorithm is wrong.”
Sagitec declined to answer questions about why the system isn’t working. In a statement last week, the company apologized for its poor performance.
“While we anticipated and load-tested for an extreme volume of Marylanders to file claims through the system, we have experienced unexpected performance issues,” company officials posted on their website.
“We know that this is an already extremely trying time full of confusion and worry. We apologize for the frustration that performance issues have caused Marylanders and their families.”
The company said it has hired a hundred people to “get it fixed.” On Friday, the state Labor Department tweeted that it has activated 286,000 accounts, and that 360,000 weekly claim certifications have been filed.
Within minutes, frustrated applicants replied to the tweet asking for help with the site and asking when they will receive payments.
Jason Suggs, who works for the state as an unemployment claims associate, said the system was overwhelmed by an “avalanche” of claims but that another issue affecting the launch was insufficient training.
“We were not trained until the night before,” Suggs said on a conference call organized by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees union to discuss the need for additional federal aid to state and local governments.
Suggs, who is a union leader, said workers were learning the system alongside those filing claims.
In his letter, Brown asks Hogan’s administration to provide answers to a number of questions related to the state’s backlog, including the average number of days it takes to process a claim, the average wait time for initial calls and how many Marylanders have received benefits.
Sen. Katie Fry Hester (D-Howard) said she has received dozens of calls from constituents about the problem and suspects that there was more involved than just an overloaded system.
“People who have been calling me have been in this virtual queue for six, seven, eight hours, and you get kicked out, and then can’t get through to anyone,” she said. “I’ve had people call me in tears. One said: ‘I’m a mom, my kids are at home. I have no food in the fridge.’ It’s very, very sad.”
Hester said she was surprised by what she described as an initial lack of communication from the state about the problems but was pleased to hear Hogan’s recent remarks.
“At least that’s a start,” she said. “We’ll take it.”