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To Get Unemployment Benefits, Residents Face Long Waits, Technical Glitches


Maryland’s unemployment insurance system has been plagued by problems for weeks. For more than nine hours on Tuesday, dozens of residents took turns sharing their experiences navigating the system with members of two state Senate committees.

Residents described spending entire days on hold with state call centers and sending repeated emails, trying to reach a Department of Labor staff member who might be able to help. They said claims are rejected without reason, and benefits that were approved suddenly stop coming.


When Senate leaders announced Tuesday’s hearing, more than 1,100 residents signed up to tell their stories. The first 270 were invited to testify live via Zoom, while the rest were asked to submit recorded videos. 


Many of the stories sounded similar.


Applying for unemployment benefits has become a full-time job for Denita Wallace, who said she had to close her business nine weeks ago. 


“I call several thousand times a day, every business day for the last three weeks,” Wallace said. “The one time I actually got through to the queue, I had to hold on for three hours to speak with a person. She said the system was down and she couldn't help me.”


Emails yield an automatic reply or none at all, and she said she spent two full days trying to login to the online system. At one point, the system, known as Beacon, told her there were 125,000 people in front of her.


“But somehow after nine weeks of crying, stressing, borrowing to stay afloat, I finally saw all kinds of movements and updates to my Beacon account right after I signed up to speak before this committee,” Wallace said.


Multiple people told legislators they are behind on their bills, including rent or mortgage payments. 


Stephanie Adams, a single mom with a 4-year-old daughter, said she was laid off March 20. She said she was receiving her unemployment benefits until the state switched to the new Beacon system. Then the payments stopped.


“I have no money anymore, and about to lose literally everything — my car — and potentially get evicted, and I’m trying really hard to keep things together,” she told lawmakers.


One woman said she’s pregnant with her third child and expects to be induced on Friday. She was hoping to sort out her unemployment payments before then.


Another woman said she’s a diabetic and is worried about paying for her insulin.


“How are families supposed to survive?” asked Amanda Douglas.


Douglas said she applied for benefits after she was laid off in early April. Then she got a letter saying her payments were on hold while staff reviewed her eligibility. Like others, she said she called and emailed seeking answers but couldn’t reach anyone.


“Who's being held accountable for all these lives that are being ruined by this — people that haven't been paid in two months or more, and small businesses that are just — they're never gonna recover?” she asked legislators. “No one can get answers.”


The legislators hosting Tuesday’s hearing don’t have direct power over the unemployment insurance system. Gov. Larry Hogan does.


Last month, Hogan apologized for problems with the state’s unemployment site. But at a press conference last week, he said the problems have been solved.


“The unemployment site has been completely fixed for at least 10 days,” Hogan said on May 6. “It was very slow for about five days. I promised at a press conference a week ago that we were going to get it fixed, and we got it fixed within a matter of days.”


Just before Tuesday’s hearing, the state Department of Labor released a statement saying it has paid 327,649 unemployment claims received during the pandemic. 


“While we are making progress, there are still many frustrated Marylanders waiting to receive benefits. Please know that we are listening, we know what needs to be improved, and we are focused on getting the job done,” Labor Secretary Tiffany Robinson said in the statement. “We will not be satisfied until every Marylander gets the relief they need and deserve.”

Rachel Baye is a senior reporter and editor in WYPR's newsroom. @RachelBaye
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