Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan is getting plenty of flak on the many areas where his administration has failed to meet the challenge of the COVID-19 virus in a state battered by skyrocketing unemployment.
On top of the lagging test program (we are still waiting for the bootleg tests from South Korea to show up in practice), both out-of-work Marylanders and their representatives in Congress have, or will, bring the heat on Hogan’s lagging Labor Department. More evidence that the system is broken comes from workers within the department.
Wednesday June 17 Maryland workers united in protest against the state’s broken unemployment system. In a peaceful demonstration, across lunchtime (11 to 1) workers aimed to raise public awareness of the Department of Labor’s negligence and demanded change from Hogan and Labor Secretary Tiffany Robinson. The demo took place at the unemployment division office 1100 N. Eutaw St. in Baltimore.
Meanwhile Maryland’s Congressional delegation has poked Hogan with a letter detailing the failures of the state labor department to get rightful compensation to the state’s one in five workers who are jobless.
“Maryland congressional leaders are urging Gov. Larry Hogan to make more improvements to the state’s new Beacon One-Stop unemployment benefits website,” US senators and representatives jointly wrote, “because they say constituents are not receiving their benefits in a timely manner,” McKenna Oxenden reported June 10 in the Baltimore Sun.
“We have previously weighed in with both the U.S. Department of Labor and your administration to urge you to address a myriad of problems preventing or delaying workers getting their benefits,” wrote both Senators and all members of the House – including Andy Harris (!).
Hogan’s frontline corps of snarky publicists argued the lawmakers were just seeking “a headline not a solution,” said Hogan mouthpiece Mike Ricci, who claimed the letter was sent to the press before it was sent to the governor. This turned out to be incorrect; the administration’s folks seem just to have missed it though it was sent their way “hours before it was sent to the press,” the Sun reported, referring to Sen. Ben Cardin’s office having received an email from Hogan’s folks acknowledging the letter’s arrival. The letter from Maryland’s delegation complained that their offices have forwarded contact information for workers who have complained about the lagging labor department system but have had little response, and proposed the department dedicate more personnel to improve responses to workers.
An article in Maryland Matters reports that unionized employees at the state labor department have also reported complaining about the understaffed unemployment response.
In a Maryland General Assembly hearing Tuesday, labor department employee Sean Santmyire “told the House Appropriation and Senate Finance committees Tuesday that employees who take unemployment claims over the phone and online were given just four hours of training the night before the new BEACON system was activated.
“The shortage of trained staff who had the proper equipment and training has put many Maryland families without checks and without communication from DoL,” he said. “Because we have so many people who cannot get through to [an unemployment insurance] professional via email or phone, many cannot get answers why they have not received their payment.” Santmyire also told the joint hearing that workers at the DoL had been put at risk by a lack of teleworking capacity, forcing them to report to the office with poor provisions for protection, including masks and other PPE.
“Every time I try to find out about unemployment there is just a stone wall,” Sen. Katherine A. Klausmeier (D-Baltimore County) told Santmyire, “and Sean, you have said more today than anyone from the Department of Labor has said to me,” Maryland Matters reported.
The workers mounting Wednesday’s demonstration also have been circulating a petition demanding an internet filing capacity, a call-back system rather than the wait time of hours on the overburdened system, and hiring a new company to process the requests.
“More than 700,000 jobless claims have been filed in Maryland since the pandemic began, with over 43,000 added the last of week of May. That’s more than one in every five residents [who were] employed in February,” according to The Sun.
First published June 11 in the Progressive Maryland BlogSpace, and updated for the July Washington Socialist.