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Self-employed Mainers unite as state struggles to get benefits program online amid COVID-19

Officials say they are still in the 'software development phase' of the process to get unemployment benefits to the self-employed amid the coronavirus pandemic.

AUGUSTA, Maine — Kira Spellman is a driver's ed instructor.

Carla Heisten is a massage therapist.

Lisa Guay owns a small cleaning business.

All of them are going on well over a month without work, without money and answers.

"I feel like we've been forgotten," Heisten said. "There's just nothing out there for us right now."

"I have bills to pay," Spellman told NEWS CENTER Maine. She said she wakes up every morning to check if the Maine Dept. of Labor website has been updated.

RELATED: 'Weeks, not months:' Self-employed Mainers still cannot get unemployment benefits during coronavirus, COVID-19 pandemic

"It's been a struggle," Guay said as she detailed the number of times she has tried to get help, including applying for a small business loan just as federal funding ran out. 

They are among the more than 67,000 self-employed Mainer, anxiously waiting for the state to get a new benefits program up and running. 

Maine's Department of Labor is working to implement the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance Program, part of the federal CARES Act, that aims to bring relief to Maine’s self-employed.

Pres. Trump signed the measure on March 27, and the U.S. Dept. of Labor interpreted the law and crafted guidance for the states.

Maine received that guidance on April 5.

RELATED: Maine sees first unemployment claim decline in four weeks amid coronavirus pandemic

State officials continue to urge patience and ask self-employed Mainers wait to apply.

"We're working as many hours as we can," Fortman said."Right now we're in the software development phase."

Now nearly three weeks after Maine received federal guidance, 

"Unemployment insurance is complex," Fortman noted.

NEWS CENTER Maine found a big reason for the delay has to do with the technology required to accept and process applications---including the system the state first struggled to roll out in 2017 called ReEmployUSA.

It is a five-state consortium, including Maine, Rhode Island, Connecticut, Oklahoma and Mississippi, that uses the same cloud-based computer system. 

Credit: NCM

Officials with the Mississippi Department of Employment Security that developed the program did not return NEWS CENTER Maine's request for comment. 

Rhode Island and Oklahoma have opted against using it right now. 

"We are in hiatus because we had concerns about what a rollout would look like for our state," a spokesperson for the Rhode Island Dept. of Labor and Training said. 

The state, in coordination with Brown University, was able to create its own program, and had it up and running two weeks ago. 

Oklahoma is still in the early phases of trying to implement the program, but officials there said they are accepting pre-applications as they adapt their existing software.

Connecticut and Maine both confirmed they are working with ReEmployUSA to implement the new changes required as a result of the CARES Act.

RELATED: Your questions about filing for Maine coronavirus unemployment answered

Connecticut unemployment officials said they expect to have their system up and running by April 30. 

But Maine still could not say when the system will be up and running. 

"Maine is in a much better position than many other states," Fortman said.

She said ReEmployUSA is one of the 'few things going right' in the process, but only provides about 80-percent of the framework required.

"I can't give you an exact date, but we're aware of what Connecticut is doing and we are talking on a regular basis," Fortman said.

Last week she said she anticipated the roll-out to take 'weeks not months.'

"Everyone's working six days a week," she said. "Most people are working ten-hour days to try and address this as quickly as possible."

For those who are not self-employed and still cannot get through to the Dept. of Labor, Fortman said she expects big changes to come out later this week intended to speed up the income and employment verification process.

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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: www.newscentermaine.com/coronavirus.