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Maryland Democrats recommend legislative fixes to state’s ‘broken’ unemployment system

Maryland State Senate President Bill Ferguson (D-Baltimore City) and House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones (D-Baltimore County).
Maryland State Senate President Bill Ferguson (D-Baltimore City) and House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones (D-Baltimore County). (Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post)
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Maryland Democratic lawmakers are calling on the Hogan administration to make immediate and long-term fixes to the state’s “broken” unemployment system, which has been plagued with problems since the beginning of the pandemic.

Lawmakers said their offices have been swamped for months with calls from constituents trying to figure why their benefits are delayed or denied.

During a news conference to unveil the legislative proposals, Senate President Bill Ferguson (D-Baltimore City) relayed the experience of a single mother of two boys who called his office in desperation. She said she had reached out to the unemployment office 500 times over six weeks without any response, Ferguson said, and was down to her last $30.

“Marylanders need help,” Ferguson said. “They need to put food on their tables. They need to pay their rent. . . . We must do better.”

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Maryland has fallen woefully short of meeting federal guidelines, which requires 87 percent of applicants to receive their first payment within 14 to 21 days after applying. In the fourth quarter of 2020, Maryland was at 27.9 percent. The national average at the time, according to a review by the Brookings Institution, was 52.6 percent.

Ferguson and House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones (D-Baltimore) said the proposals, some of which will be introduced as emergency legislation, are designed to improve customer service, create accountability and prepare the system for the next crisis.

Among the immediate changes are requiring caller ID for phone calls coming from unemployment offices, allowing payments to be distributed by paper checks instead of debit cards, establishing a system that allows applicants to leave a callback number and creating a process that allows people to track the status of their claim.

The longer-term recommendations call for a study of the state’s unemployment benefits administration, the creation of a disaster plan and a staffing plan that includes filling vacancies at the agency.

Michael Ricci, a spokesman for Gov. Larry Hogan (R), called the Democrats’ proposals a “Band-Aid,” falling short of a “real and permanent fix.” Ricci said Maryland law makes it “nearly impossible” for an applicant to get a faster response because it is one of four so-called mitigation states that require adjudicators to determine if there are factors that led to a denied claim.

But at their news conference, several Democratic lawmakers said the government must do better, expressing frustration for constituents who have been in what Sen. Katherine A. Klausmeier (D-Baltimore) often refers to as “adjudication purgatory.”

“We’ve all done what we can to assist, but it shouldn’t take our intervention for the system to work,” Del. Derrick E. Davis (D-Prince George’s), chairman of the House Economic Matters Committee, said.

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