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Maryland’s unemployment filings soar for 2nd straight week

Labor Secretary Tiffany Robinson. (The Daily Record / Bryan P. Sears)

Labor Secretary Tiffany Robinson. (The Daily Record / Bryan P. Sears)

More than 84,230 Marylanders filed for unemployment benefits for the first time in the last week, a continuing sign of the shock effect a pandemic is having on the local and national economy.

The claims for the week ending March 28 bring the total job loss in Maryland to 126,564 in two weeks. Last week, 42,334 residents filed for first-time claims.

“In the past week, our division has taken more claims in the month of March than in the entire year,” said state Labor, Licensing and Regulation Secretary Tiffany Robinson in a Wednesday briefing with state legislators.

“In the past week, that 42,000 number that we talked about has been blown out of the water,” said Robinson.

And while the numbers are initially shocking, they are not unexpected.

Two weeks ago, Gov. Larry Hogan ordered the closure of bars and restaurants to sit-down customers. He also closed theaters, casinos and other non-essential businesses and imposed restrictions on the sizes of public gatherings. In the last week, Hogan has restated those orders and threatened to arrest those not adhering to his directives as public health experts attempt to slow the spread of the virus in the state.

On Thursday, the state reported 2,331 confirmed cases of COVID-19 including 582 people who have been hospitalized because of the virus. To date, 36 people have died.

Hogan on Wednesday said the state will experience an exponential increase in cases.

Dr. Clifford Mitchell, director of the state health department’s Environmental Health Bureau, warned the Maryland State Board of Elections Thursday that Maryland is looking at a public health crisis that will go on for months rather than weeks.

Nationally, the first-time jobless numbers are equally jaw-dropping, with with more than 6.6 million new claims. The figure represents the largest first time claims number since the federal government began tracking.

Most of the claims were attributed to the fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic.

The impact of the pandemic was felt in service industries including the hotel and food services. The U.S. Department of Labor also reported that states are reporting broader effects including the health care, social assistance, manufacturing, retail and wholesale trade and construction industries.

Robinson said her department has experienced an “unprecedented surge” in jobless claims in the last two weeks.

“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.

It is not clear in the latest statistics whether workers not traditionally covered by unemployment insurance — the self-employed and gig workers — have started filing claims as allowed by recent changes in federal law..

The expected crush of unemployment claims is not expected to abate soon and will likely 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.”

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