“I had to go through hell,” said Bliss Martin, who was laid off March 31 and was told Monday that her benefits would be coming soon. “Mentally, it was exhausting. It was depressing.”
Martin and others said they have gone weeks — some even months — without any money from unemployment. Others have received money only to have their benefits abruptly stop.
“How are people supposed to feed their families when they are not getting paid?” asked Maria Smith.
The Senate Budget and Taxation Committee and the Senate Finance Committee listened for hours on Tuesday to hundreds of residents who expressed frustration with the state’s troubled system, which launched last month to deal with a surge in claims from the coronavirus shutdown.
For weeks, Maryland lawmakers have been inundated with calls and emails from frustrated constituents who have experienced malfunctions, error messages and confusion over qualifying questions as they try to file claims and update their status.
Sen. Guy J. Guzzone (D-Howard), chairman of the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee, said Tuesday’s hearing was a chance for residents to air their grievances publicly. He said he hoped the hearing would lead to improvements.
Gov. Larry Hogan (R) said last week that while there had been some initial glitches with the system, the problems had been “completely fixed.”
“Clearly, the system has not been fixed,” Guzzone said after the first hour of the hearing.
Ahead of the marathon legislative hearing, the Maryland Department of Labor released an update on its processing and payment of claims.
Labor Secretary Tiffany P. Robinson, who was not invited to participate in Tuesday’s Senate hearing but plans to address a House committee on Wednesday, said the state has paid 327,649 unemployment insurance claims since the coronavirus outbreak in March. She said 90 percent of claimants have received checks within three weeks.
Robinson blamed a “series of challenges” the department experienced on the surge of claims and “constantly changing” federal rules. In three months, the state has received double the number of claims it had in 2019, she said.
Maryland’s experience has been like those of states across the country, Robinson said.
“While we are making progress, there are still many frustrated Marylanders waiting to receive benefits,” Robinson said. “Please know that we are listening, we know what needs to be improved, and we are focused on getting the job done. We will not be satisfied until every Marylander gets the relief they need and deserve.”
Some workers asked who would be held accountable. Amanda Douglas, a single mother, questioned the decision to revamp the system during the pandemic.
“They should have put some of that money into staffing the division,” she said.
Douglas was one of 1,100 people who asked to share their stories. About a quarter of them were permitted to participate in the virtual hearing, telling their stories in two-minute limits.
To deal with the overwhelming response, the committees planned to meet for nine hours “to ensure that the maximum amount of Marylanders can have their voices heard,” Jake Weissmann, a spokesman for Senate President Bill Ferguson (D-Baltimore City), said Monday.
There were as many as 1,400 people who watched the virtual hearing, the first of its kind for the Maryland General Assembly.
Laid-off workers have repeatedly raised alarms about the state’s troubled system and their inability to reach anyone by phone to answer questions.
Sen. James C. Rosapepe (D-Prince George’s), vice chairman of the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee, said Maryland’s system “was not designed to deal with this scale” of claims.
“It’s not just the computer, it’s the system,” he said. “Many people haven’t gotten their checks. Many haven’t been able to get their applications approved.”
Nearly a half million people have filed for unemployment in Maryland in the past seven weeks. Last week, more than 109,000 people applied, the largest increase since the pandemic forced many companies and businesses to close. That increase was largely due to the federal stimulus package extending unemployment benefits to gig workers and the self-employed. Last week was the first time since the shutdown that those workers could apply.
“We certainly appreciate our legislators getting engaged on this issue, especially when it comes to all the hurdles here that have to do with new programs and constantly changing federal guidelines,” Mike Ricci, a spokesman for Hogan, said in a statement Monday evening. “In spite of that, we have been able to help hundreds of thousands of people, and we continue to make improvements on a daily basis.”