Complaining that the state's unemployment insurance program is mired in red tape and unresponsive to the needs of the jobless, several dozen unemployed workers and their supporters staged a protest yesterday to demand reforms.
"The whole system is very dehumanizing," said Peter French, a member of the Baltimore Unemployed Council, which led a protest yesterday at the state's unemployment insurance offices in the 1100 block of North Eutaw Street.
Several dozen protesters -- some, with clothes pins on their noses, complaining that the system "stinks" -- marched into state offices to demand that changes be made to make it easier for jobless workers to get unemployment benefits.
Among the 10 demands they gave to state officials were:
* That obstacles to unemployment claims be resolved within seven days.
* That benefits not be cut off before a hearing or appointment with the recipient.
* That, as provided by law, employers who don't respond to an unemployment claim within eight days be fined.
* That more clerks be hired for offices with a heavy volume of claim applications and that more phone lines be installed for telephone inquiries.
* That people be notified by mail if their benefits are about to expire and that automatic extensions of benefits be granted for people remaining unemployed.
* That claimants not have to wait more than two hours after appearing at the unemployment office for a scheduled appointment.
Thomas Wendel, executive director of the Office of Unemployment Insurance, and Charles O. Middlebrooks, DEED's assistant secretary for employment and training, met with the protesters and promised to look into their complaints.
The department is already trying to address some of the issues, the two men said.
Mr. Middlebrooks said he has hired more employees to process claims. He now has more workers than desks and computers for them to use, he said, and is implementing an automated telephone system that will give claimants information faster.
Mr. Wendel said his office is exceeding federal requirements for serving petitioners in a timely fashion.
In 93 percent of the cases, payments are made within 21 days after applicants make their initial unemployment insurance claims, but for the remaining 7 percent, there are problems that should be addressed, he said.
About one-third of the people who apply for unemployment benefits are denied their claims, said Susan Bass, legislative liaison for the Office of Unemployment Insurance.
Many times, they have failed to work long enough or earn enough money to meet benefit requirements.
Workers in Maryland are eligible for 26 weeks of unemployment insurance benefits.
Depending on their previous salaries, payments range from a minimum of $25 a week to a maximum of $223 a week.
Ms. Bass said claimants also must fulfill certain work requirements, such as having been employed in at least six months out of the previous 15 months before applying for benefits.
As of Jan. 25, 70,594 Marylanders were receiving benefits in the state program, and about 26,000 were receiving benefits under the federal extension program, Ms. Bass said.
Yesterday's protest was not the first time DEED has been accused of failing to serve jobless workers. The Legal Aid Bureau Inc. filed a class action suit in Baltimore Circuit Court last summer alleging that the office was not paying benefits in a timely manner. Lawyers are trying to negotiate a settlement in the case.
Although the suit outlines many of the same allegations made by the protesters, Mr. Wendel said he doesn't think his office can do a significantly better job without more resources.
"We don't have the dollars, the computer facilities or local office facilities to do what they want," Mr. Wendel said of the Legal Aid suit.
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 yesterday 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 a bureaucratic loop ever since.