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Thousands still await hearings in Md. to get jobless benefits

"We are in the process of tripling the size of the division to handle this crisis," says Labor Secretary Tiffany Robinson, shown earlier this year. (The Daily Record / Bryan P. Sears)

“We are in the process of tripling the size of the division to handle this crisis,” says Labor Secretary Tiffany Robinson, shown earlier this year. (The Daily Record / Bryan P. Sears)

Maryland’s labor secretary said the state is again beefing up its staff to handle a backlog of unemployment claims related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Since March, the state’s unemployment system has been the subject of repeated criticism from lawmakers and those filing claims for benefits. To date, more than 41,000 people are awaiting hearings that could determine whether they will ever be paid.

Labor Secretary Tiffany Robinson attributed the delays, in part, to efforts to be vigilant against fraud but also to the historic amount of claims filed over the last seven months.

“We are in the process of tripling the size of the division to handle this crisis,” said Robinson during a meeting with the Board of Public Works Wednesday. “It really doesn’t match the 5,000% increase in volume that we have seen, so we’re still going to be working hard.”

Robinson faced questions about the large number of claims and the delay in holding hearings for claimants, some who have not been paid for months while awaiting hearings.

“I’m concerned that we’re treating this like some kind of court administrative hearing, where people have to do this and do that,” said Comptroller Peter Franchot. “Cant we err on the side of relief and if we have to do some clawback, I just hate to think of these folks being told you have to wait for an interview and an interview takes forever.”

Gov. Larry Hogan said the state is working as hard as it can to clear the backlog.

“I would say, by any metric, we’re doing better than almost any state in the country,” he said, adding that the department can always do more.

“If we have one person that is not happy, it’s not good enough,” he said.

Franchot said his office receives dozens of letters and emails each week from people asking for help getting their unemployment. He read one email from a single mom who said she’s been told it will be eight weeks before a hearing can be held.

The comptroller said his staff has “cracked the code” and been able to work with some staff in the Department of Labor to expedite some cases. He called on Robinson and others to do more, including finding a way to release some money to claimants awaiting a hearing and “clawing back” payments from those later found to be ineligible.

I’m not suggesting you break the law, madam secretary,” Franchot said. “I’m just suggesting that you come up with some kind of innovative way around this because the system we have in a pandemic is subject to abuse because as soon as someone objects then everything gets tossed into a completely bureaucratic investigation, etc. I understand that in normal times. These are not normal times.”

Robinson said that her agency has its hands tied in some ways by state and federal law and must do the investigations to determine eligibility. Some of the claims are delayed by a lack of documentation from displaced workers or disputes with employers.

Additionally, the state sees a significant amount of fraudulent claims, including early Tuesday morning when someone attempted to file tens of thousands of claims.

“They all have real Social Security numbers, real addresses that makes it very hard,” said Robinson.

In recent weeks, the department has hired 275 contractual call center agents as well as doubled the size of the unemployment division to 800 people. Robinson said she expects to add another 300 or so investigators to assist with the backlog of claims.

“I do believe that the staffing increase and contracts that we are entering into are going to provide relief and allow the staff to conduct the interviews in a much more timely manner in the coming weeks,” Robinson said.

Franchot called for a renewed sense of urgency, saying he is concerned rising cases in the winter and an unsettled political situation in Washington will make things worse.

“It’s going to get a lot worse because the virus is coming back with a vengeance, there’s no doubt about it. If Joe Biden is not the president then we’re really in hot water here as far as unemployment down the road,” said Franchot. “God knows what happens with the second stimulus.”

 

 

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