WASHINGTON POST: Laboring to get answers on Maryland’s unemployment woes

Peter Franchot

AUG 6, 2021

In my three decades of public service, I thought I’d heard it all.

But the answers — or more accurately, lack of answers — from the Maryland Labor Department at the most recent meeting of my Workgroup on Pandemic Spending was inexcusable and a disgrace to the tens of thousands of Marylanders who have run into a tsunami of problems with the state’s unemployment system during the past 16 months.

We all recognize the suddenness and magnitude of the pandemic led to unprecedented unemployment claims that flooded the system in those early weeks. And I empathize with the hard-working state employees who have done their very best to help Marylanders who lost their jobs through no fault of their own.

As head of a state agency that employs 1,100 workers, I know that it can take a little time to pivot in a situation as large and unforeseen as the pandemic, but it can be done.

When the legislature passed the Relief Act of 2021, we distributed checks to 98 percent of the 422,531 recipients within five days of the governor signing the bill into law. In recent months, we issued $1,000 grants to Marylanders whose unemployment claims were stuck in adjudication within 48 hours of getting the list of recipients from the Labor Department.

But amazingly, Labor’s performance seemed to worsen over time, despite pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into hiring more call-center operators and claims agents.

For example, the department approved 90 percent of unemployment insurance claims within 21 days in April 2020, but in July, 70 percent of payouts took more than 70 days to approve.

In challenging times, Marylanders look to the government for help. When it snows, drivers count on transportation workers to plow the roads. When taxpayers file, they expect our agency to quickly process their returns and send their refunds. And when a global pandemic ravaged our economy, forcing tens of thousands of layoffs, jobless workers expected the state’s unemployment system to give them a lifeline so they can pay rent or provide for their children.

But it is clear that the state is not fulfilling its duty to the people who need help. My office, which has no jurisdiction over unemployment insurance, receives phone calls and emails from frustrated Marylanders every day. In many cases, they know we’re not in charge of unemployment, but they’re just trying to get through to a human being, to talk to someone who can help, or even just listen.

These conversations are heartbreaking and at the same time, infuriating.

Stories of people who haven’t been paid in months. A man calling the Labor Department 25 times to see if his claim could be escalated, and, 25 times, he was told that his case was being prioritized. Months later, he is still awaiting his unemployment check. A woman wondering if she’s going to have enough money to keep a roof over her head while feeling the effects of mental anguish.

To be clear, the Labor Department has paid out almost $13.2 billion in state and federal claims to more than 675,000 Marylanders since March 2020.

But more than 20,000 claims are still pending. And the $40 million set aside by the General Assembly to provide $1,000 payments to Marylanders whose unemployment claims were stuck in adjudication for more than 30 days has been exhausted. That’s 40,000 people in unemployment purgatory, and there are likely more who won’t get anything since the money ran out.

On top of that, reports of unexplained disruptions or delays in payouts, underperforming customer service and a flood of fraudulent filings continue to dog the system.

Labor Department officials said they have identified nearly 1.5 million fraudulent unemployment insurance claims. However, they also acknowledged that an unspecified number of fraudulent claims were paid. Our experts estimate that the state has paid up to $2 billion in fraudulent payments, but until we get answers from the Labor Department, we don’t know the scale or the gravity of these various unemployment fraud schemes.

When we have real Marylanders experiencing desperate times like these, how does this happen?

So what was the department’s response when Deputy Labor Secretary David McGlone appeared recently before my workgroup?

“We don’t have that data.”

“We’ll look into it.”

“We’ll get back to you with an answer.”

To call it aggravating is an understatement.

My staff had sent many of the topics and questions we hoped to learn more about to the department several weeks in advance.

Those of us who choose public service must be accountable to our bosses, the residents of Maryland. That is the charge of this workgroup: to examine where taxpayer money went and how it was spent. It was also designed to learn what we as government officials can do better.

The Maryland Department of Labor needs to do better. Its officials need to be able to explain their missteps on how they handle unemployment claims and why fraudulent claims are still able to go undetected.

I implore the department to provide these answers. Our citizens are begging for help. It’s long past time that we deliver.