ANNAPOLIS, Md. (AP) — Maryland's labor department had a backlog of more than 34,000 pending unemployment claims as of last week, but the department secretary told lawmakers Wednesday the agency is making progress processing claims.

Tiffany Robinson's department has struggled after being inundated with a historic number of claims in the last three months due to the impact of the coronavirus on businesses. But she said the department has made progress by reaching out to people to try to resolve issues that have caused delays in receiving benefits.

"We have effectively resolved and/or contacted and are in the process of resolving almost 10,000 claimants' issues from that process alone," she told lawmakers.

As lawmakers pointed out the department needs to be prepared to do better in the event of a second wave of the virus, Robinson said she believes the department will be ready.

"We are increasing staff," Robinson told a joint panel of lawmakers who meet regularly to discuss problems relating to the coronavirus. "We have increased our technology and our communications and every single day we are working through this paradigm shift of how to operate under such stressful situations that we've seen during this pandemic; so I think we'll be ready."

More than $2.7 billion in unemployment benefits have been paid to people in the state, Robinson said.

Her department has received nearly 540,000 complete claims and processed more than 502,000, she told the panel. Robinson also said 405,608 claims, or about 75%, who have filed have received payment. More than 97,000, or about 18%, have been denied because they have not met state and federal program requirements, she said.

Robinson said the the backlog of more than 34,000 claims represented about 6.5% of claims filed. She noted that 6% of claims pending is not an unusual percentage in normal times.

"It's a higher number, because obviously our volume is higher," Robinson said.

The secretary pointed out that the state had some weeks with more than 100,000 claims. Last week, even as the claims have been trending down, the state had more than 41,000 new claims.

"I share that to provide some perspective as to the magnitude of the issue that we're facing in the department of labor in Maryland and across the country," Robinson said.

Many residents have struggled to navigate Maryland's website to receive benefits. At a hearing last month conducted online with state lawmakers, about 1,100 people signed up to testify about the difficulties they experienced. About 275 people testified over nine hours.

The state has gradually lifted restrictions in recent weeks to allow more businesses to open to enable more people to get back to work.

"As things start to reopen, hopefully, the unemployment issues start to be less acute as people begin to go back to work, although we do know that there are still a substantial number of people that are waiting for outstanding back payments," Senate President Bill Ferguson said.

Ferguson also said the unemployment benefit system will need to be able to kick back into gear to handle large numbers, if a second wave of the coronavirus hits.

"We have got to learn the lessens of what went wrong the first go round, what changes have been implemented so that if we have to experience this again we're in a better place than we were on the front end," Ferguson, a Baltimore Democrat, said.

Robinson said her department is planning to hold a weekly call for lawmakers and their staffs, who regularly hear of difficulties their constituents are experiencing in trying to get unemployment benefits.

"I know each one of our staffs has been feeling overwhelmed, as I'm sure many in the department have, and so I think that will be very very helpful," Ferguson said.

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