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Comptroller Pushes For Answers On Unemployment Program Spending

Comptroller Peter Franchot speaks at a rally related to unemployment benefits in June. Credit: Rachel Baye/WYPR
Comptroller Peter Franchot speaks at a rally related to unemployment benefits in June. Credit: Rachel Baye/WYPR

Maryland Comptroller Peter Franchot grilled a representative from the state Department of Labor Thursday over its handling of unemployment insurance benefits.

Since April of last year, the department has spent $230 million on two contracts with outside vendors to staff the unemployment benefits call center and adjudicate claims, in addition to other contracts related to fraud detection and benefits payments. The state also has hired more employees and brought workers in from other departments to handle claims.

Still, many calls and emails are going unanswered. Franchot said his office receives hundreds of emails related to unemployment claims daily.

"Most of these folks know that our office has nothing to do with unemployment, but they say they simply cannot reach anyone from the Department of Labor to discuss their issues,” Franchot said.

He read a few of these emails aloud during the meeting.

“I've been awaiting my review for seven months and have been escalated to the highest level of urgency for over four months,” Franchot read from one. “I've called the agency 25 times, and there's nothing they can do other than to escalate again.”

Another person wrote that, after his benefits stopped coming in May, he is out of money and options.

“I've got one more from Brooke that reads, ‘While I understand I'm not the only unemployment claim, I do not understand the lack of assistance I've experienced,” Franchot read. “Not having access to my benefit payments is affecting my livelihood to a point where it's also affecting me mentally — watching my debt accumulate and feeling unsure if I will have a roof over my head next week.’”

The Department of Labor has received more than 2.8 million claims and paid out more than $13 billion in combined state and federal benefits since the beginning of the pandemic, David McGlone, deputy secretary of labor, said during the meeting. In 2021 alone, the department has received more than 547,000 new claims.

McGlone said more than the department has paid out about 82% of those claims and rejected another 15%. As of July 17, just over 21,000 claims — just under 3% — were still pending.

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