ANNAPOLIS — Maryland residents used words like “soul crushing” and “hell” to describe their experiences seeking unemployment benefits via a state website, testifying Tuesday during an online hearing with state lawmakers.
More than 1,100 people signed up to testify before leaders of two Maryland Senate committees, which scheduled hours to hear from the first 270 who signed up to testify. A common complaint was the inability to reach someone for help using the website.
“You can call thousands and thousands of times and be unable to get through,” said Beth Bell, who was laid off in mid-March. “If you do get through to one of them, you’ll end up in a circle and then get disconnected. It’s soul crushing.”
Others spoke of spending hours over several weeks trying to get through to someone for help. Bliss Martin said someone finally got back to her to help on Monday, after she started sending emails about two weeks ago.
“But mentally, it was exhausting,” she said. “It was depressing. I mean, it was horrible. It has not been an easy process, but I’m thankful that it was fixed, even though I had to go through hell for it to happen.”
More than 490,000 people have filed for unemployment in Maryland in the last two months — an unprecedented number for the state.
Maryland has been able to pay more than 327,600 claims during the pandemic, the state’s labor department said, and 90% of claimants have received payments within 21 days. Since Saturday, the department said Maryland has paid 56,000 Pandemic Unemployment Assistance claims, adding up to more than $165 million in relief.
“The unprecedented volume of new claims, and constantly changing guidelines from the federal government, have presented a series of challenges not only for our department, but for unemployment programs across the nation,” said Maryland Labor Secretary Tiffany Robinson.
Robinson said the state is making progress on the outpouring of claims, though she recognized that many are still frustrated and 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,” she added.
Maryland received 214,475 claims for all of last year, the department said, and it has received more than twice that amount since March. The department said Maryland had multiple record-breaking weeks, where initial claim filings were more than 100,000. That compares to the average of 2,000 weekly claims received before the coronavirus pandemic.
Gov. Larry Hogan acknowledged “serious problems” with a new website during a news conference last month. However, Hogan, a Republican, said last week that the problems had been addressed.
The chairs of two Maryland Senate committees said they were holding the online forum to let the administration know many people are still having problems.
Sen. Delores Kelley, who chairs the Senate Finance Committee, and Sen. Guy Guzzone, who chairs the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee, said it’s clear the problems with the system have not been fully resolved.
“This is an unprecedented level of interest from Marylanders, and we hope the Governor, Secretary Robinson, and their staff are listening and take appropriate action,” Kelley, a Baltimore County Democrat, and Guzzone, a Howard County Democrat, said in a joint statement. “It is our responsibility to provide an opportunity to elevate these Maryland residents’ voices, and we hope this hearing results in solutions from the Administration.”