Luke mill

Former Verso Corp. employees who were hoping help would be there when they lost their jobs a year ago are now facing ongoing stress resulting from issues in trying to secure unemployment benefits. (CTN file photo by Ken Nolan)

CUMBERLAND — Former Verso Corp. employees who were hoping help would be there when they lost their jobs a year ago are now facing ongoing stress resulting from issues in trying to secure unemployment benefits.

About 675 people found themselves out of work when the Luke Paper Mill, owned by Verso, closed about a year ago. Verso cited production costs and foreign competition among its reasons for closing.

Hundreds of former employees, searching for options, attended a job fair at the old Bruce High School about two weeks after Verso announced on April 30, 2019, that the plant would cease operations in 30 days and close completely on June 30, 2019.

Officials representing various employment and labor agencies spoke at the job fair. Workers were told their cases would be placed in a “special status” and benefits processing would be streamlined to help the workers who were suddenly displaced from their jobs.

Good news also surfaced at the time when the former employees were determined eligible for federal Trade Adjustment Act funding. In addition to 26 weeks of unemployment benefits, they could receive additional help through TAA, which is administered under the U.S. Department of Labor. Under that program, an employee who lost their job due to global trade pressure could receive monetary benefits equal to their unemployment insurance for 130 weeks, as long as they enrolled in a full-time job training program.

While some retired or found new employment, others decided to take advantage of available funding to return to school at Allegany College of Maryland. The school is offering an 18-month program in mechanical disciplines that culminates in industry certifications.

Nearly 70 displaced Verso employees have taken advantage of the job training program.

However, life for Americans, and indeed lives worldwide, were upended with the arrival of the coronavirus. Since COVID-19 began impacting the U.S. around March, many states, including Maryland, have been flooded with millions of additional unemployment claims.

To complicate matters, the Maryland Department of Labor switched from the WebCert computer system to the BEACON one-stop portal in April as the pandemic spurred mass unemployment filing. Those seeking benefits reported serious problems getting claims processed online and were unable to reach help by phone. Applicants found themselves thousands deep in the queue. The issue caused state officials, including Gov. Larry Hogan, to apologize for all the problems.

However, according to the former Verso workers, issues persist. Problems range from people not being paid at all for numerous weeks to some being overpaid — or paid from the wrong program — who have subsequently been asked to refund monies while their benefits are frozen.

The Times-News visited with several of the displaced workers on Thursday. All but two of the 44 currently enrolled in classes are experiencing problems.

Former Verso employees David Miller, Rocco Graziana, Lane Tephabock, Gina Fertig and John Keller shared their frustrations.

The employees say confusion occurs with the classification of their benefits which ranges from a variety of programs including Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation, Unemployment Insurance and TAA benefits.

“You are trying to go to school but you have this on your mind all the time,” said Miller. “You call, and try to get it straightened out and it says leave your number for a call back and then it says sorry we can’t take your call, try back. We thought our benefits were okay. I’m sending emails and they say, ‘It’s a programming thing.’ I’m pulling out of savings and it’s hard to put back. I’ll ask, ‘Do I really need my medicine?’ I have a lot of health problems.”

Keller received overpayment. “I was told I’ve been paid out of the wrong program and I was overpaid. They said I owed $3,090 and a week later I got a letter that said I owed $2,575 and they held my benefits until I pay this money. They wanted $150 payments and put a hold on my benefits. I can’t send them the money if they won’t pay from the right program.”

Keller said his BEACON account no longer works and it changes whatever he tries to enter his information. “I’m trying to get my benefits and do my school work. All of this preoccupies you and you can’t get anything done.”

The average age of the former Verso worker is 51.

“It’s very frustrating,” said Tephabock. “We are older people. We are trying to take these courses and we have sent emails and make phone calls every day and they can’t help us. You are trying to go to school, which is hard, and we have to deal with this. You get up in the morning and start reading emails and try to get back. They can’t seem to get it right.”

Fertig has not been receiving benefits.

“The problem is getting paid,” she said. “I am going to have to take money from my 401K to pay the bills. I think when BEACON first came up, I don’t think anything was right. We all had that problem. We hoped it would get better.”

Fertig said she was entered in the wrong program and was three weeks behind. “I finally got a call from a specialist and they asked a couple of questions but it didn’t change anything,” she said.

Sen. George Edwards was asked about the situation.

“My staff has been working quite hard trying to get people through the process,” said Edwards. “It is not just that group, it is other people. They switched to BEACON and it was supposed to solve all the problems. ... The first hour it was up it broke down. The irritating part is the secretary and the governor kept coming out saying everything was fine and it was working and everyone knew it wasn’t.”

Edwards said, “Some haven’t received anything in payment. We want everybody to get their payments and get up to date. Nobody anticipated the numbers they received. They have narrowed the gap down. People are getting through the process now. They ensure me they are working through it.”

Edwards said he reached out to the Department of Labor on Friday. He relayed the response which included: “We have been working with these individuals. As with most everything, the COVID-19 health pandemic caused a disruption in this process. We are working with them on a case by case basis. We are actively reviewing each of these claims to ensure they are in the correct program and receiving the proper benefits for payment. We will continue to work with the individuals to resolve any issues they are experiencing with their claim.”

Rep. David Trone forwarded his phone number for the former Verso workers. He added via email: “My team and I are in touch with local union leadership and the Maryland Department of Labor to help solve each and every case. Anyone who needs help should contact my office immediately. We won’t stop working until each person receives the benefits they have earned.” 

Follow staff writer Greg Larry on Twitter @GregLarryCTN.

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