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‘You're at the mercy of a system you don't know how to get through to’: a message from the jobless in Maine

Priscilla Dimitre is one of the thousands in Maine finding themselves without a job due to coronavirus pandemic and unable to get answers about unemployment benefits

PORTLAND, Maine — Priscilla Dimitre describes herself as a workaholic who has spent the last 15 years in the service industry.

However, last month she along with thousands of other restaurant employees were left jobless until further notice due to the coronavirus, COVID-19 pandemic.

“I didn't think it was going to be this bad or this long but now I'm thinking I won't be able to get back to work until Memorial Day,” Dimitre said. “I'm just trying to stay positive, that everything will work itself out.”

Dimitre has been out of work since mid-March. She said she has some savings to fall back on, but what she needs more than anything are unemployment benefits. She says she immediately filed an unemployment claim but has yet to hear back from the State about whether she will be able to receive help. Instead, she says she had to dig on her own to see that her claim was on hold.

So, she picked up the phone.

“Once I found out that I had an allotted time to be able to call based off my last name, I called and I got the same thing everyone else is experiencing,” Dimitre said. “You put in all your information and the automated message comes on that says they're sorry but there are too many calls going on right now, so we can't take your call.”

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Unfortunately, that's the same message a lot of Mainers are getting. The sudden need for unemployment benefits is creating a major backlog in the system. The Commissioner of Maine’s Department of Labor, Laura Fortman said Thursday the department faced a system overload last week.

“A week ago Monday we received over 250,000 phone calls which overloaded the phone system and brought it down,” Fortman said.

She says they are doing the best they can to keep up with the growing demand. Last week, Fortman says the State handled $10-million dollars' worth of benefits and more than 31-thousand new claims. When added to the two previous weeks, more than 76-thousand people are out of work mostly due to business closures because of the pandemic.

RELATED: 16.8M Americans thrown out of work as economic toll of virus rises

“We've stabilized that system but we have also implemented a new phone procedure and if you can, apply for the benefits online,” Fortman said. “Please have patience, we are working through things as quickly as we can.”

Dimitre says she understands how difficult this must be for staff handling claims right now, but she has a greater concern -- what will happen to those waiting for help in the meantime?

“There are other people who are in way worse of a condition than I am – there are people out there who don’t know if they’re going to eat tomorrow,” Dimitre said. “You're at the mercy of a system you don't know how to get through to.”

RELATED: FACTS NOT FEAR blog: 142 confirmed COVID-19 cases in Maine 

You can hear more of your questions get answered by the Commissioner Friday night on 207.

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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