Maryland Labor Secretary Tiffany Robinson vowed to improve communication between her department and lawmakers after a number of legislators — Democratic and Republican — complained about an inability to resolve unemployment benefits problems for constituents when dealing directly with top aides at the department.
Robinson appeared before a joint meeting of the Senate Finance and House Economic Matters Committee Thursday to brief lawmakers on upgrades being made to the state’s computerized claims system. Those same lawmakers, however, said their efforts to resolve problems for constituents have been fruitless because aides to Robinson are not responsive.
Sen. Ed Reilly, R-Anne Arundel, said his staff has a list of constituent complaints from March, April and May that remain unresolved. Robinson urged Reilly and others to contact her and her legislative director Andrew Fulginiti.
“Since you brought Andrew’s name up, he’s part of the problem,” said Reilly. “He’s not been responding. What do I do with the case? Send it to you?
“He’s overwhelmed and he does a great job at times, but we have some issues that are falling through the cracks,” said Reilly.
Maryland reported more than 13,500 new claims for the week ending Sept 12, still more than the most claims filed for any week of the Great Recession. That’s on top of roughly 400,000 who are receiving continued benefits.
On Wednesday, the department took its unemployment system offline to move to a cloud-based program that will allow applicants to work on their claims online and on their smartphones. Employers will be able to resolve most issues involving claims of laid off employees, Robinson said.
That new system goes live on Sunday for those seeking benefits and on Monday for employers.
Reilly and others said reports in The Washington Post of applicants who are intentionally dumped from calls because there are no available representatives is also concerning. But Robinson said most callers are on hold an average of 15 minutes, and those that are dropped are done so because customer service agents are not available.
Del. Lorig Charkoudian, D-Montgomery, said the explanation offered by Robinson “just doesn’t seem to match” the experiences of constituents.
The department is hiring an additional 50 people to handle the complicated process of adjudicating claims.
“It’s not clear that my office would have been able to get that resolved, though we worked really hard on it since July,” said Charkoudian, who said she worked directly with an aide to Robinson.
Some frustrated applicants who have taken their complaints to reporters have had their issues resolved.
Robinson maintained that the process in the department is working but when claimants speak to the media “obviously we have no choice but to try to elevate and get someone in touch with that claimant to figure out what is going on right away. But what happens when we do that is another claimant who has been waiting in line and undergoing the process gets delayed because we only have capacity to handle so much and we have a process.”
Lawmakers for months have been working with the department on constituent claims, submitting them through a combination of spreadsheets and emails and sometimes calls to top aides to Robinson.
“The system is working,” Robinson told lawmakers, adding that she and her staff have held weekly calls with legislators over the last two months.
Del. Warren Miller, R-Howard and Carroll, disagreed.
“In my experience and the experience of my staff, 95% of the people who come to us have struck out with (the department),” said Miller. “They file claims and through no fault of their own either can’t get the information they need or they file a claim and never receive a debit card and on a weekly basis we still get people who are frustrated with this process.”
Miller said responses to his office from the department “come back in a hodgepodge” manner. Some still haven’t been resolved.
“Honestly, we haven’t heard these complaints on any of those calls (with legislators),” Robinson said.
But Robinson acknowledged that some claims may have “fallen through the cracks” and remain unresolved. She said there are rare cases that “are taking too long.”
We know that some things have fallen through the cracks because claimants have contacted you and 20 other legislators and the governor and are already working with three of our agents,” said Robinson.
“I hear where you’re coming from, and we will continue to work to do better,” said Robinson.