Unemployment driven by COVID-19 is continuing to surge, says Maryland Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation Secretary Tiffany Robinson.
Robinson told members of the legislature’s Joint COVID-19 Work Group Wednesday that her agency is seeing an unprecedented number of claims in the last two weeks.
“In the past week, our division has taken more claims in the month of March than in the entire year,” said Robinson.
Robinson made her comments during a video conference briefing for lawmakers held Wednesday morning. The briefing was not accessible to the public live. An audio-only version was posted on the General Assembly website Wednesday afternoon.
Last week, the department released figures showing that during the third week of March more than 42,300 people filed first-time unemployment claims in Maryland, a number that vastly exceeds the highest period of claims during the Great Recession. Nationally, more than 3.2 million first-time unemployment claims that same week.
Most of the claims were attributed to the fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic.
“In the past week, that 42,000 number that we talked about has been blown out of the water,” said Robinson.
First-time unemployment claims through March 28 will be released Thursday morning. Robinson told lawmakers she could not provide specifics until they are made public.
“We have experienced an unprecedented surge in claims traffic both by phone and by web,” said Robinson.
“It’s difficult for us because we’re dealing with an entirely new set of claimants, Marylanders who have never been in this situation before so they have a lot of questions,” said Robinson.
To handle the surge, Robinson said, the department is making changes to ease the filing process, including extending hours of operation for the call center from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Another change involves asking the public to file by phone or online using their last name.
Beginning tomorrow on Wednesday, April 1, our Unemployment Insurance Claim Center hours will be further extended to 7 a.m. to 6 p.m., Monday through Friday. We are encouraging Marylanders to begin filing their claim using the new system outlined below. pic.twitter.com/lKwwATXgmX
— MD Department of Labor (@MD_Labor) April 1, 2020
“While this helps us spread out the calls and claims throughout the week, we’re not turning anyone away,” Robinson said. “If someone with a last name that begins with Z calls on a Monday, we’re taking their claim.”
Also new are the claims that can now be filed by workers not traditionally covered by unemployment insurance, including the self-employed and gig workers.
The increase in unemployment claims is expected to drain the state’s unemployment trust fund, which, even at nearly $1.2 billion, is not solvent under federal guidelines.
Robinson said states such as Maryland are hoping for federal aid in a fourth phase of federal stimulus spending to help replenish the fund “that will be depleted during this pandemic.”
“That would certainly help us,” said Robinson, who said the state does not plan to increase, the tax on businesses that goes into the fund. Currently Maryland employers pay the lowest rate.
“We do not want our employers to bear the brunt of any of this next year through their tax rates, so we’re pushing really hard for the federal government to help us out,” she said.
Under the most recent funding bill passed by Congress, the federal government will pick up the first week of unemployment claims between March 29 and December 31. The bill also kicks in an extra $600 per week for four months on top of existing benefits, which will now extend 13 weeks beyond the typical 26 weeks.
The federal government is also offering states no-interest loans for their unemployment benefits systems.
“We’re asking for more than that,” said Robinson.
But the payments could be delayed while the state waits for guidance from the federal government on documentation that will be required, especially for workers who weren’t traditionally covered by unemployment insurance. Nonetheless, benefits will start from the date of the job loss, said Robinson.
“It doesn’t happen overnight but we are ramping up our IT team and preparing for what we think it’s going to be,” said Robinson. “It’s unfortunately very confusing for Marylanders who saw President Trump sign this bill and they believe they are eligible now and unfortunately cannot take their claims because we don’t have the questions from the federal government that they need us to ask and the documents they need us to provide.”