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As Lawmakers Push For Answers On Unemployment Woes, Secretary Promises 'Progress'

Shaunte Hines unemployment protest.jpg
Baltimore City resident Shaunte Hines speaks at a rally in June. After losing her job at GDL Italian by Giada, a restaurant at the Horseshoe Casino, at the beginning of the pandemic, Hines said she went back to school to study information technology. Credit: Rachel Baye / WYPR

Maryland lawmakers continued to press state Labor Secretary Tiffany Robinson for answers Monday about an unemployment insurance program that they said still isn’t working.

Members of the state’s Joint Committee on Unemployment Insurance Oversight repeated long-held concerns about unemployed workers who continue to wait months for benefits or even information.

Del. C.T. Wilson, a Charles County Democrat, said during the meeting that he worries about people who have finally started to receive benefits after months of delays but are still owed back pay. Many of these residents are “very much underwater” with unpaid bills from when their benefits were on hold, Wilson said.

“Nothing seems to be working here,” said Sen. Kathy Klausmeier, a Baltimore County Democrat who co-chairs the committee. “It just continues to just go down and go down and go down, and it's like beating our heads on the wall.”

She lamented that the legislators seem to be stuck between the state Department of Labor and desperate constituents who bombard their offices with pleas for help getting through to the unemployment insurance call center.

“That is one of the most difficult positions to be in, when you're answering the phone and somebody says, ‘You know, I still haven't gotten it for, like, six months, and nobody will give me an answer, and I can't get through,’” Klausmeier said. “I'd like to have a quarter for every ‘I can't get through,’ because I'd be rich.”

Robinson said the department is doing its best with limited resources.

“The only way for us to answer every single call,” Robinson said, “I would need to hire about 10,000 people. I don't have the funding for that or the capacity to train 10,000 people.”

Robinson said the state received nearly 2.9 million unemployment insurance claims between the start of the pandemic and Aug. 7.

“We are making progress, especially considering that now the claim volume is starting to drop,” Robinson said. “And we do see a light at the end of the tunnel, in September, with the federal claims ending. So we will be able to get through all the issues faster when we don't have the additional issues being created every week.”

Federally funded expanded unemployment benefits, established during the pandemic, are set to end Sept. 6. At that point, anyone who is self-employed or has received benefits for more than 26 consecutive weeks will be disqualified for unemployment benefits.

Rachel Baye is a reporter for WYPR's newsroom.
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