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Maine Dept. of Labor to expedite decisions on thousands of unemployment claims amid coronavirus, COVID-19 pandemic

“Unprecedented times demand unprecedented action,” Labor Commissioner Laura Fortman said.

AUGUSTA, Maine — In response to the situation caused by COVID-19, the Maine Department of Labor (MDOL) is streamlining its standards for 18,000-20,000 pending unemployment claims that would typically require a fact-finding interview. The department hopes this will relieve a backlog and bring certainty about benefits to Maine people as fast as possible.

Fact-finding interviews are scheduled when an initial claim requires review by unemployment staff, or more information is needed, before a determination about eligibility can be made. Most claims are straightforward and can be processed without a fact-finding. Normally, interviews for those that do need one are scheduled within 2-3 weeks.

Due to the unprecedented surge of claims due to the coronavirus pandemic and a high number of new claims requiring review by unemployment staff, fact-finding interviews extended into July, which would have unacceptably delayed Maine people from receiving critical benefits.

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“Unprecedented times demand unprecedented action,” Labor Commissioner Laura Fortman said. “By issuing clear decisions on their unemployment claim, MDOL has opened the door to thousands of Maine people to take the next steps in the unemployment insurance process as quickly as possible. We will continue to do all we can to ensure that every eligible Mainer receives the benefits they need to provide for their families during this crisis.”

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MDOL said its streamlining will result in one of three outcomes for all current and future unemployment insurance claims through May 30:

  1. About 5,000 claims that were likely to be approved after an interview are now authorized to move forward without an interview to ensure benefits can be delivered quickly.
  2. About 7,000 claims waiting for an interview that were likely to be denied due to the claim not meeting monetary eligibility requirements will be denied, a necessary step to ensure these claimants can take further action without delay.
  3. The remainder of claims will still have fact-finding interviews or other staff review but on an expedited schedule. to ensure they are resolved as quickly as possible.

“To any person denied benefits today, I want to first acknowledge that I know this news will be difficult and disappointing to hear," Fortman added. “This denial may open the gateway to the next set of federal benefits that we hope to distribute soon.”

MDOL is developing a new web-based system to process these newly eligible claims and said it will provide a firm timeline on this early next week.

Over the past five weeks, the department has received more than 101,000 initial claims for unemployment, which is equal to the total number of claims received in the five years prior.

“Over 100,000 people who who were working at the beginning of March, have since applied for unemployment insurance benefits,” Fortman said. “The good news is that two-thirds of those that have applied, are now receiving benefits.”  

“That being said, I know that there are still too many people who have applied for benefits and were awaiting for their applications to be approved. We looked at about 19,000 people that would be have normally been scheduled for fact-finding," Fortman added. "If we took the normal course of scheduling, we would be scheduling out until July and that is just too long to wait. So about 12,000 (cases) have been expedited and they will not have fact-finding and they will be receiving notices by email and U.S. Mail...in the next couple of days."

To date, MDOL has paid out benefits to 69,015 people, totaling more than $100 million dollars.

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MDOL said it continues to implement solutions to the challenges created by the sudden and unprecedented levels of questions and claims to meet the needs of Maine people. Claims staff are working extended hours, as well as on Saturdays and holidays to process applications and contact claimants who have errors on their applications.

The department has also contracted with a Maine-based center to provide first level claims assistance. About 100 people are answering calls, up from 13 a month ago. MDOL claims its online unemployment system is performing as designed and is available 24/7.

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The department recommends that people file their claims online, using a computer as opposed to a smartphone, if possible. MDOL has also implemented an alphabetical call in schedule to help reduce phone line congestion to manage capacity to receive and process claims.

Claimants with last names beginning with A-H should call on Monday, I-Q on Tuesday; and R-Z on Wednesday. Thursday and Friday are available for those who miss their alphabetical day or need to call at that time.

As the department continues to expand the number of people taking calls, the call-in hours have been extended to 8 a.m. - 3 p.m. Those who are unable to connect with a claims representative by calling 1-800-593-7660 before 3 p.m. Monday through Friday should submit a message at www.maine.gov/labor/contact.

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