AUGUSTA, Maine — Lawmakers want more answers from the state’s labor commissioner about the cause of the delay in rolling out new unemployment benefits.
The Legislature’s Labor and Housing Committee will meet next week to discuss ongoing problems with the system, which has been overloaded due to record job losses from the coronavirus. The committee will focus on why contractors and the self-employed still cannot receive benefits after the $2.2 trillion stimulus package passed last month that expanded eligibility, said committee co-chair Mike Sylvester, D-Peaks Island.
Maine has lagged behind other states in paying out benefits to that group, and Sylvester said the committee wants to get a better understanding of what technological and staffing barriers stand in the department’s way on the record. Party leaders of both chambers requested Department of Labor Commissioner Laura Fortman appear at the meeting in a late-night letter to Gov. Janet Mills on Friday.
Sylvester said he has fielded thousands of emails and phone calls from constituents about the issue. Some have waited for over a month to get benefits.
“Maine has so many independent contractors and small businesses, and those folks have been waiting patiently for benefits,” Sylvester said. “But we’ve reached the point where patience isn’t going to keep the wolves from the door.”
The meeting comes after Fortman announced on Friday efforts to streamline up to 20,000 unemployment claims by skipping or speeding up some fact-finding interviews that would typically slow an approval.
Those efforts are expected to quickly approve claims for 5,000 people, while 7,000 claims will be denied first before they can apply again. The rest will see fact-finding interviews sped up.
The state has seen about 100,000 people file for benefits within a five-week period, and about two-thirds of those have received benefits. Over $100 million has been paid out in that timeframe.
The unemployment system has long been criticized for being difficult to navigate, especially after a revamp was botched three years ago. Maine’s unemployment hotline was staffed with just 14 people when unemployment claims began to climb in late March, and some claimants reported waiting days before getting help.
The department has since shuffled staff and hired 100 new employees to staff the phone lines to relieve the backlog. It has also expanded call-in hours.
The timing of the in-person meeting is being worked out, but Sylvester expected it would take place mid-week. The committee is only expected to meet once, he said.