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Labor Commissioner Fortman sends legislative letter updating Maine coronavirus unemployment insurance situation

Maine Department of Labor Commissioner Laura Fortman detailed the processes ongoing to improve unemployment benefit payouts amid the coronavirus, COVID-19 pandemic

AUGUSTA, Maine — Maine Department of Labor Commissioner Laura Fortman has been under pressure since the coronavirus, COVID-19 pandemic put thousands of Mainers out of work. Fortman released a lengthy letter Friday night, responding to criticism from legislators around the state. 

Fortman detailed all the DOL has faced in the weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

"When the COVID-19 pandemic struck, it ushered in an unprecedented period of social and economic disruption," said Fortman. "In Maine and across the country, the swift and sudden closures of businesses to protect public health put immense pressure on unemployment systems to process and pay benefits for thousands of workers desperately and deservingly needing help."

Fortman specifically addressed the staggering numbers of unemployment claims the department has seen during the three-month pandemic. 

FULL LETTER TO THE LEGISLATURE 

"Between the beginning of our state of emergency on March 15 and June 6, the Maine Department of Labor has seen nearly 156,000 initial claims for the state unemployment program and 67,000 initial claims for the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) program. There have been 1.2 million weekly certifications filed, and the Department has paid out more than $720 million in federal and state unemployment benefits to 116,000 individuals. The number of filed claims and the number of people who filed claims are separate and distinct data."

"As we continue to investigate and verify legitimate claims, we want to caution that these numbers are subject to change as the investigation into criminal imposter fraud continues. Our work is far from done. Too many of our family, friends and neighbors are still awaiting benefit payments amid the anxiety and uncertainty of COVID-19. Our phone response remains unacceptable for many people, and our website experience demands improvement. The hard-working people of Maine deserve an unemployment system as resilient as they are," said Fortman. "Despite these shortcomings -- and the unfortunate rise of criminal impostor fraud victimizing unemployment systems nationwide -- I assure you MDOL will make every effort possible to pay Maine workers the benefits for which they are eligible, as soon as possible," said Fortman.

The response was sparked by events that began nearly two weeks ago, when the Legislature sent Forman a letter asking for updates on unemployment payouts. Some around the state were critical of what they said were severe issues with the unemployment insurance payout program. 

Top leaders of both parties sent the joint letter to Governor Janet Mills two Fridays ago, asking Commissioner Fortman to answer questions from the Labor and  Housing Committee. The letter asked to explain the reasons for what appears to be continuing delays in providing benefits to thousands of out of work Mainers.

"(As)we are all keenly aware, too many Mainers remain unable to access (unemployment insurance) today - some weeks after first applying - and are facing dire financial straits. While the Department has made progress, one of the new federal programs, which will benefit the many Mainers who are self-employed, still remains unable to accept initial applications. The status of thousands of other claims is backlogged. Phone lines are jammed and many questions submitted electronically have been unanswered," the letter states.

Last week, the problems of the state's unemployment system became front and center in Augusta again when Commissioner Fortman didn't attend the Labor and Housing Committee zoom meeting.  

Committee members said they were expecting to hear from Commissioner Fortman to answer questions about the difficulties with fraud, and with the computer system that lawmakers say is causing thousands to go without benefits, or even lose unemployment benefits. But the Commissioner didn't show up. And committee leaders were clearly angry.

"There are thousands of Mainers across the state really struggling right now, who haven't received benefits they deserve, who have gone two months without any income to pay rent or mortgage or insurance or groceries," said Sen. Shenna Bellows (D-Manchester), the committee's co-chair.

Governor Mills responded by saying the committee knew Fortman wouldn't attend. "I directed Commissioner Fortman to remain engaged in her work today," Mills' statement said, "and to continue to push out benefits to Maine people who desperately need them – a goal lawmakers share."

Commissioner Forman closed by praising the department's employees and assuring legislators the department's work was far from complete. 

"Weathering this pandemic is the hardest challenge ever faced by the Maine Department of Labor. I am proud of how our staff continues to face this adversity and work tirelessly to ensure Maine people receive the benefits they deserve," said Fortman. 

"It is clear, though, the hardest work and most daunting challenges remain ahead. I will leave you with this overarching goal from the Department: to not only address the problems currently facing the unemployment system, but to work to make Maine an example of how an unemployment system should work. I look forward to working together towards this goal."

At NEWS CENTER Maine, we're focusing our news coverage on the facts and not the fear around the illness. To see our full coverage, visit our coronavirus section, here: /coronavirus

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