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First-time unemployment claims in Md. set new record

More than 109,000 people filed for first-time unemployment benefits in Maryland, the highest number of claims since the coronavirus pandemic brought a grinding halt to economic activity in the state.

The number of claims was swollen by a new category of unemployed previously ineligible for benefits — self-employed and workers in the so-called “gig” economy, such as Uber drivers. Of the 109,000 claimants, 47,263 were those who come from that new category, which was authorized with the enactment of the major federal stimulus package.

“We were expecting these numbers, and we’re doing our best to process them,” said Maryland Department of Labor Secretary Tiffany Robinson during an interview on WBAL radio.

Previously, the highest number of first-time claims since Gov. Larry Hogan declared a state of emergency and later closed all but essential businesses was 108,000 for the week ending April 4.

In all, 490,875 have filed for benefits in Maryland in the last seven weeks. The total for last week was nearly three times larger than the previous week as claims continue to greatly surpass those filed during the peak of the Great Recession.

The actual number of unemployed in the state is considered to be much higher because of the number of people out of work who are not eligible for benefits.

Maryland’s unemployment system and its new online application program have suffered from crashes and massive wait times since the day it opened. On Wednesday, Hogan declared the site fixed.

But Robinson acknowledged this week that some applicants have seen delays in being paid. Some have reported waiting a month for benefits. The secretary said in many cases the delays involve conflicts in information provided by the applicant and employers that must be resolved before payments can be issues.

“Unemployment insurance law is complex,” said Robinson during the radio interview. “If I could throw the rules out the window and pay everyone and figure the rest out later, we would do that. I can’t do that unfortunately.”

The sharp increase in new unemployment claims is also likely to fuel calls by groups such as ReOpen Maryland and even some Republican lawmakers for Hogan to move quickly to lift restrictions that closed many businesses in Maryland in response to the public health crisis.

In the year prior to the pandemic, first-time claims for unemployment in Maryland typically ranged between 2,500 to 3,200, except for the month around the Christmas and New Year’s holidays.

Nationally, more than 3.1  million claims were filed for the same week. The number of unemployed in the country now approaches 34 million workers.

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