LINCOLN, Maine — Denise Wotton made the tough decision to close her salon in Downtown Lincoln four weeks ago as the COVID-19 coronavirus spread across Maine.
Since then, she and the stylists that rent booth space from her have been struggling without pay and still cannot receive unemployment benefits—because they are considered self-employed.
"Four of them are single moms. They have no other income,” Wotton said. “It breaks my heart."
Wotton and her coworkers are among many small business owners and self-employed people anxiously waiting to apply.
The Maine Department of Labor has handled more than 89,000 claims and issued more than $46 million in benefits to date, but unemployed people typically do not qualify.
“All of us have family, friends, neighbors who are going through the same experiences.” Commissioner Laura Fortman told NEWS CENTER Maine. “We are working as quickly as possible to get benefits out there to people."
Fortman denied any real delay, citing the fact she and her team have to create an entirely new program because self-employed people do not typically qualify for benefits.
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She said the Department 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. The U.S. Dept. of Labor interpreted the law and crafted guidance for the state.
Maine received that guidance on April 5.
Two weeks later, state officials are still reviewing it, creating forms and developing the software that has to be tested, according to Fortman.
Officials are also seeking additional clarification from the U.S. Dept. of Labor on which tax forms are required for income verification.
"Some of these technical issues have to be worked through,” Fortman said. “We’re looking at weeks not months.”
She said she is hopeful the $1200 stimulus checks will help tide people over and urged those who are self-employed to use the time to gather tax documents in preparation.
Fortman asks people to refrain from calling the Dept. of Labor in the meantime.
She said the Department now has one hundred people answering the phones and is continuing to use an alphabetical call schedule to handle the massive influx in callers.
The best way to apply for unemployment benefits is still online though.
Starting this week those receiving benefits will start to receive an additional $600 a week in their accounts as a result of additional aid included the CARES Act.
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.