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With unemployment claims surging to unprecedented levels amid lockdown measures meant to stem the coronavirus’ spread, states are struggling to process all the claims flooding their systems — leaving many who are out of work or furloughed still without access to aid despite lawmakers all along touting their efforts to support hard-hit families.
In Maryland, an updated online portal struggled to speed up the processing of claims and was plagued by errors, according to Rep. Anthony Brown, D-Md. Brown wrote a scathing op-ed in the Baltimore Sun earlier this month claiming that “more than 100,000 residents still could not file as of last week for unemployment and barely half of those who have successfully applied for unemployment since March 15 have received their benefits.”
A press release from Brown this week indicates that just 36 percent of Marylanders who filed initial unemployment claims in March and April received payments.
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In New Jersey, a group of leaders in the state Senate sent a letter to Gov. Phil Murphy and the state’s labor commissioner asking for any way the legislature could help reduce that state’s backlog, which, the letter said, has “thousands of people eligible for unemployment benefits … being asked to wait [until] July to receive the checks they need desperately.”
“The residents of New Jersey have waited far too long and are enduring too much hardship,” the Senate leaders wrote. “The failure to provide this support in a timely way is making circumstances worse. We all have an obligation to protect our residents from any further suffering.”
Congress expanded the unemployment aid program and tacked on an additional $600 per week for several months in the recent coronavirus relief package — provisions House Democrats are now trying to extend in their latest bill.
But at the state level, logistical problems persist.
The Florida unemployment website displays an outdated layout along with a message on the front page warning potential benefits-seekers that the system “is currently experiencing higher than average wait times when contacting the Reemployment Assistance Program.”
It continues: “We apologize for this inconvenience, Thank you for your patience during this time.”
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For those who might want additional information on how long the coronavirus might delay their unemployment benefits, there’s a link at the bottom of the page that purports to answer FAQs. It takes site users to a 404 page as of Friday morning.
Florida’s unemployment office claims that about 95 percent of eligible claims have been paid after a more severe initial backlog when claims first started coming in, but anecdotal evidence shared online by state legislators and local reporters indicate that the system is still plagued with issues.
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo last month addressed delays in that state’s unemployment system, saying in a press briefing that “there were so many unemployment claims that it collapsed.”
“We have one thousand people who are now working on that unemployment website and phone call system,” he said. “I mean, it’s unbelievable. A thousand people just to take the incoming unemployment calls. That’s how high the volume is. And they still can’t keep up with the volume. “
Cuomo did mention that the state would allow unemployment seekers to qualify retroactively, saying, “you’re going to get the same benefit. It’s not costing you any money.”
New Jersey similarly promises to eventually give qualifying residents backpay for benefits missed due to these delays. As of Thursday, the state reported that it saw 1.1 million claims since mid-March, with more than 725,000 now collecting state and federal benefits. That still leaves hundreds of thousands waiting, though some of them may not be eligible or only just filed.
Of course, many laid-off workers are faced with bills that are due immediately, whether or not they eventually get their full benefits from the state.
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There have been reports of similar issues in Oregon, Kentucky and elsewhere.
States’ issues distributing unemployment insurance — which is largely funded by the federal government but managed by states — to millions of Americans who are losing income during the coronavirus pandemic comes as governors are pleading with Congress for more money to handle budget shortfalls. Specifically, in a joint statement on behalf of the National Governors Association, Maryland Gov. and NGA Chairman Larry Hogan and NGA co-Chair Cuomo asked for billions to bolster state budgets.
The governors asked for a half-trillion dollars “in fiscal support for state budgetary shortfalls resulting from the pandemic, enhanced FMAP funding to provide healthcare to our most vulnerable, and 100 percent federal cost share for FEMA response and recovery efforts.”
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Congressional Democrats have been receptive to such calls, but some Republicans, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., have said they don’t want to bail out states, saying that they should have been more fiscally responsible before the coronavirus crisis hit.
But as leaders scramble to direct unemployment assistance where it’s needed and governors worry about their bottom lines, Americans looking to financially tide themselves over to the end of the crisis struggle.
“You can call thousands and thousands of times and be unable to get through,” said Marylander 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.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Tyler Olson covers politics for FoxNews.com. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter at @TylerOlson1791.