Several dozen unemployed Marylanders and their supporters -- some with clothespins on their noses -- marched into the state's Office of Unemployment Insurance today and told the agency's director "the system stinks."
Organized by the Baltimore Unemployed Council, the protest was mounted to demand an end to long delays in benefit approvals, alleged dehumanizing treatment and red tape that leaves applicants without cash for weeks or months.
"People are being terrorized," said Robert Simpson, an unemployed worker and council co-chairman.
After a sidewalk rally and news conference outside the Unemployment Insurance offices in the 1100 block of N. Eutaw St., the protesters trooped quietly into the building and headed for the offices of Thomas Wendel, executive director of the Office of Unemployment Insurance.
They delivered a list of 10 demands, among them:
* Resolution of obstacles to unemployment claims within seven days.
* No cutoffs in benefits before a hearing or appointment with the recipient.
* Fines as provided by law for employers who don't respond to an unemployment claim within eight days.
* Hire more clerks for offices with a heavy volume of claim applications, and install more phone lines for telephone inquiries.
* Notify people by mail if their benefits are about to expire, and automatic extensions of benefits for people still unemployed.
* Make claimants wait no more than a two hours after appearing at the unemployment office for a scheduled appointment.
Mr. Wendel and Charles O. Middlebrooks, DEED's assistant secretary for employment and training, met with the protesters and promised to check out their complaints.
The department already is trying to address some issues, they said.
Mr. Middlebrooks said he has hired new employees to process claims and is implementing a automated telephone system that will give claimants information faster.
Mr. Wendel said his office is exceeding the federal requirements in serving petitioners within a timely fashion. In 93 percent of the cases, payments are made within 21 days after applicants make their initial unemployment insurance claims. But he said for the other 7 percent of the time, there are problems that should be addressed.
Lawyers for DEED are negotiating a settlement in a class-action suit brought the Legal Aid Bureau Inc. in Baltimore Circuit Court that alleges the state is not paying benefits in a timely manner.
Mr. Wendel said he doesn't believe his office can do a significantly better job without more resources.
While the state officials were meeting with the leaders of the Unemployed Council, other protesters spoke about their experiences with the agency.
Brian D. Winder, 24, of Edmondson Village, went to the office today for a fourth time to try to resolve what he said was a mix-up that had left him without benefits for two months. He saw the protesters and decided to join.
"One of the guys in the [unemployment] office said someone punched in a wrong code on the computer," Mr. Winder said. He has been stuck in an endless bureaucratic loop ever since.
"I had to miss school today to come down here," Mr. Winder said. "They talk nasty to you, or they hang up on you and tell you to just come down here. They treat you like you're a bother to them."
The Rev. Melvin B. Tuggle, pastor of the Garden of Prayer Baptist Church in East Baltimore, joined the protest to represent Clergy United for the Renewal of East Baltimore.