Top Maryland lawmakers vowed on Thursday to reform the state’s unemployment insurance program, saying too many out-of-work residents have had to wait long periods for their benefits claims to be processed.

Senate President Bill Ferguson (D-Baltimore City) called the backlog of resolved claims a “crisis,” and he pledged that lawmakers will move quickly on legislation to speed processing of applications, improve customer service and prevent the state’s Department of Labor from being overwhelmed by a future surge.

“People are struggling,” he said at a press conference announcing the proposals.

“And there are benefits that they deserve that have been stuck in purgatory over and over again. This package is to get us to a standard of basic governance,” Ferguson said.

Maryland, like other states, has experienced an unprecedented spike in claims due to job losses triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic. The state has added staff and hired contractors, but tens of thousands of jobless residents have claims that are “pending,” because of questions about their eligibility.

State lawmakers have been swamped by requests for help from out-of-work constituents. Some calls and emails are from people who are homeless, hungry and desperate for help, because they have run out of money, lawmakers said.

“They are living in shelters. They can no longer afford a phone,” said Senate Finance Committee Chairwoman Delores G. Kelley (D-Baltimore County). “They are down to nothing. They are in the most elemental state of distress.”

The measures the General Assembly will consider would:

  • Ensure that people can receive their unemployment benefits through direct deposit, and simplify the process for receiving a paper check instead of a debit card
  • Ensure that the state Department of Labor’s call center is adequately staffed
  • Require that call-backs from the agency have Caller ID, so persons who are screening their calls will know when someone from the department is trying to reach them
  • Offer materials in multiple languages

Lawmakers said they will also consider steps to make sure that, if Maryland encounters a future surge in jobless claims, benefits will flow more quickly.

Maryland has received 937,606 unemployment insurance claims since the pandemic began, a staggering number for a state of 6 million people.

More than 893,900 have been processed, according to the office of Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R). The remainder, nearly 43,700, are listed as “pending” due to questions about the applicant’s work history, willingness to accept a different position or other matters.

“Maryland has one of the strongest unemployment systems in the country, consistently resolving more than 95% of claims throughout the pandemic and aggressively blocking fraud at every turn,” said Michael Ricci, the governor’s spokesman.

Most states are “pay or deny” states, in which claims are processed in a single step, Ricci said. Maryland is one of four states that considers whether a benefits-seeker quit their job without sufficient reason, was terminated for misconduct, or refused comparable work from their previous employer.

“The only part of the system that doesn’t work is the part the legislature broke years ago when they wrote the problem into state law,” Ricci said, adding that Maryland’s law “leaves claimants vulnerable to being stuck in a complicated adjudication process.”

“Claimants deserve a prompt determination on their claim, but Maryland law makes that nearly impossible,” he added. “What is being proposed today is a band-aid and not even close to a real and permanent fix.”

In December, an analysis by Stateline, a news site funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts, found Maryland had one of the lowest claim-processing rates in the country.

The standard created by the federal government, which partners with states on unemployment insurance, is to have 87% of first-time jobless claims processed within three weeks.

Only 27.9% of Maryland’s claims met that standard, ahead of only South Dakota and Kentucky.

According to the latest numbers, 37.5% of Maryland’s claims are processed within three weeks.

Del. Ned Carey (D-Anne Arundel) said Maryland law needs to be amended so that people can make “some amount of money” without losing some or all of their jobless benefits.

“This is a necessary change in the new gig economy,” he said.

The House chairman of the Joint Committee on Unemployment Insurance Oversight, Carey said Maryland’s system has “failed.”

House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones (D-Baltimore County) stressed that lawmakers are not blaming frontline claims processors for the backlog Maryland has been experiencing.

“Our deep frustration and disappointment with the department’s response to the pandemic is not about your day-to-day efforts to help Marylanders,” she said.

“It’s got to improve,” Ferguson said. “Marylanders deserve way better than having a system that’s the worst in the country.”

By Bruce DePuyt