State handles flood of jobless claims Most are for benefits extended by Congress

December 14, 1991|By Michael K. Burns

Maryland's unemployment office has been flooded over the past two weeks with claims for extended 13-week benefits, but the agency says it has been working overtime to pay everyone who qualifies for the extra payments approved by Congress last month.

"We are about as current as we can get," said Tom Wendel, head of the Office of Unemployment Insurance, as a new batch of checks went out yesterday.

The state has issued checks to 10,200 people out of 19,500 who have so far responded to the questionnaire mailed to Marylanders exhausting their basic 26 weeks of benefits after March 1.

But about 90 percent of the remaining 9,000 applicants appear eligible to requalify for 26 more weeks of basic benefits, rather than only 13 weeks, because they have worked and been laid off again, Mr. Wendel said. That's better potential coverage, but it can take longer to process their claims, he noted.

"Some of them don't want to hear that, because they expected to get an extended benefits check right away," he said.

The law requires the agency to verify employment, pay and termination to determine the proper status of claims for benefits, Mr. Wendel said.

It takes an average of 10 days from application to issuing a check for a new claim, unless the former employer challenges the payout, he said. An extended benefit can be approved in a single day after getting the application.

The agency's 650 employees throughout the state have been working extra hours, on weekends and even on Thanksgiving to keepup with claims.

"We're very happy with the extra effort made by our people in making sure people get their checks," he said.

The law provides 13 extra weeks coverage for unemployed who use up their basic benefits between March 1 and June 13, 1992.

Mr. Wendel said some people have been disappointed because of promises made in Washington last month that extended benefits checks would be mailed by Thanksgiving.

"There was no way any state could pay people by Thanksgiving," he said. Forms weren't even mailed out (to 43,000 Marylanders) until after the holiday, he explained.

Mr. Wendel said he was surprised by the large number of people who appear to requalify for another 26 weeks of standard benefits because they had worked and been laid off again.

A person must earn at least 10 times his previous weekly unemployment benefit before being laid off to requalify for new 26-week payments, Mr. Wendel explained. If less, they could get the extended 13 weeks of payments.

About 1,500 applicants for extended benefits require further investigation, he said. Some stated they would not look for work or would refuse work, which would disqualify them, he said, but that may simply reflect their frustration at long-term joblessness.

The crush of extended benefits claims comes as the unemployment office is beginning the peak winter period, handling 4,000 new claims a week and sending checks to 50,000 unemployed Marylanders.

"We've had a lot of walk-in inquiries about extended benefits," said Mary Ragland of the Baltimore office on North Eutaw Street, which is seeing about 300 people a day. "But we've been able to serve everyone who comes in during our office hours."

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