PORTLAND, Maine —
The number of people filing for unemployment in Maine during the coronavirus pandemic has reached a record high; Laura Fortman, the commissioner for the Department of Labor, says the increase happened immediately. More than 72-thousand claims were processed last week through the state's unemployment insurance office. The department released $10-million dollars to Mainers just last week.
The new claims have - as many of you have noticed - completely overwhelmed the system. We have heard stories of technical issues while filing online; people calling for weeks with no answers... there are a lot of Mainers caught in limbo with a lot of questions. We took those questions to Commissioner Laura Fortman.
How has business changed for you in the last month?
"At the start of March we were looking at a 3% unemployment insurance rate. We were being called every single day by employers asking us what we could do to help them recruit and retain new employees. We had roughly 13 people working in our unemployment insurance unit and we had 630 additional claims for unemployment benefits. Today we released numbers and we had over 31,000 initial claims for unemployment benefits last week. If you combine that with the weekly claims, it brought us over 72,000 claims that were processed in Maine last week with over $10 million in benefits going out to laid off workers."
And is that $10-million just in one week?
"Yes. $10-million last week in benefits."
What is the biggest message you can give to people who are filing online and hitting roadblocks?
"I think the biggest message is please have patience, we are working through things as quickly as we can. If you are able to file online please do that. I know that people are trying to call into the office as well we do have an 800 number. A week ago Monday we received over 250,000 phone calls which overloaded the phone system and brought it down. We have stabilized that system but we have also implemented a call schedule. If your last name begins with an A-H we are asking you call on Monday; I-Q on Tuesday; and R-Z on Wednesday. We used that this week and I want to thank people for complying with that request; the call volume was down to a little under 50,000 phone calls a day on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday. While there is no way that we could answer all of those calls, what it did is it allowed the system to stay up and running so that we were able to talk to as many people as we possibly could. So we will keep that system moving forward, and I do want to thank people for complying with that request."
Are there efforts to add more staff to answer those calls?
"Yes. We have been cobbling together staff from across the department, and realized that’s not sustainable so we are looking at bringing on a Maine-based call center to help with those calls."
HOW TO FILE FOR MAINE UNEMPLOYMENT
To help speed this process up, what is the best way for someone to get a hold of your office right now? Calling is obviously difficult right now.
"We try to put as much information as possible on our website. We have a question and answer sheet that may answer some of your questions. We do encourage you to continue to try to call; we will be increasing the number of people answering those calls, and we really ask for your patience and understanding. These are not just numbers to any of us, we all have family, friends, neighbors who are going through this experience. We realize the impact that this is having on peoples' lives and we are working as diligently as possible to resolve any of these issues."
If someone is initially filing, how long does it take to receive a determination of eligibility; and from there, how long until they see a check?
"A simple case, so let’s say I’m working at a company and the company has had to temporarily close because of COVID-19 and I apply online and I’ve been able to do so smoothly, and I know that I have a recall date and am in regular contact with my employer, a determination should be made within 10 to 13 days. You should be receiving your benefits within that same time frame. I think what some people don’t realize is that this program is not only a federal and state partnership, you have two parties who are involved as well; you have the employee - the claimant - filing for benefits, and then you have the employer who will be verifying some of the information provided by the employee... and so you have to go through those steps before someone is actually approved for benefits. Then there is an appeal process as well, so either side could disagree with the decision that we make about eligibility and they have a right to appeal and would be provided their appeal rights."
So this is not a simple process by any means for anyone?
"No, it’s not. Unemployment insurance is a trust fund that is paid into by employers. Employers pay a certain amount based on the first $12,000 in wages for each of their employees. So that’s the U I trust fund, it’s not part of the general fund in the state. Then employees earn a certain amount of credit. So when you apply for unemployment you are asked where have you worked for the last 18 months and what were your wages; you need to have earned a little over $5100 in the previous five quarters and in two of those quarters you need to have earned a little over $1700. So all of those calculations need to be done. So for example, if you had just recently started work you may not have earned enough to be monetarily eligible, so that’s one determination that’s made. Another is: why did you leave your job? If you quit your job you may or may not be eligible for unemployment, but that would require a fact-finding. We need to talk to the employer and the employee to find out if there was a good reason for leaving that job."
That said, we got a question about fact-finding, someone has a phone call scheduled for May. That’s quite a ways away - is that a typical wait time?
"It’s not typical. It’s due to the wait time, and we are trying to see if there are other things we can be doing to speed that process up."
We had a couple of questions about Workers Compensation... they missed a month in 2018 because of Worker’s Comp. and that’s what shut down their filing online. Is there paperwork that people need to have ready?
"Let’s say you were receiving Worker’s Comp. a while ago, we might be looking at that for wages as long as you are able to work - I keep going back to that - you need to be able and willing to work in order to be eligible for unemployment. The Maine legislature put some emergency wording into place that basically said during this pandemic don’t make people actively seek work. So we are not saying you have to be out there looking, but if your employer calls you up and says, 'I laid you off three weeks ago but now we have work,' the expectation is that you would be going back."
Let’s say you’re one of the people who waited a couple of weeks to get a hold of someone, waiting for this to process through, will your payments - if you are eligible - be retroactive?
"Yes. Those will be backdated."
Under the CARES act, the federal government approved an additional $600 to those eligible. Is that something that is coming through the [Maine] unemployment office?
"Yes it is."
Is that something additional people need to apply for?
"No, the $600 is not a standalone. The $600 you are only eligible for if you meet the criteria for one of these other unemployment insurance programs."
Sole proprietors; maybe someone who ran a daycare out of their home, they are the only ones in control of their business - is there a point in which they will be eligible for unemployment?
"Yes. Congress passed, as part of the CARES act, they passed another unemployment insurance program called the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance. That would cover self-employed 1099’s, those people who may not have been monetarily eligible under state unemployment, and we are in the process of reviewing all of that guidance and determining what will be necessary in order to apply."
Any thoughts on when people who fall under that category should start applying?
"Please do not apply until the information is up on our website. I would encourage people to check the website... What’s happening is those folks are being denied under state unemployment, and they’re confused by that. The good news is that in order to be eligible for the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance you need to be determined to not be eligible for state unemployment. So hang onto your denial if you received it because you are self-employed, that will be part of the documentation under the new federal program."
Seasonal workers; a lot of them were getting ready to go back to work in March and were already on unemployment. If they have received a notice that their unemployment benefits have run out or have been exhausted, should they reapply?
"Yes. We do want them to reapply. They may get picked up by a third federal program we have not received guidance on yet, but those are extended benefits. Again we will have that guidance on the website."
For those who are still working but have very reduced hours right now, are they eligible?
"They could be eligible. Again with state unemployment the maximum benefit is $445 a week, so if you would be earning more than that $445 a week you would not receive a monetary benefit."
This is a question we’ve gotten from a lot of people, let’s say you filed for unemployment three years ago, you've forgotten your username and password - is there a way in your system to reset that?
"If you filed for unemployment before early December 2017 you are probably not in our system and you should be able to easily go online and open a new account. If you are running into problems with that, you can check with the Career Centers and they may be able to help you, or try calling the 800 number; and again we are hoping to expand the number of people answering those calls soon."
Obviously patience is key here, but anything else you want people applying to know?
"The only other thing I would do is a plea to employers. There needs to be that income verification. There is a way for employers to go online on the unemployment page and there’s a section specifically for employers and it says 'online services.' If they sign up for a program that’s called SIDES... and they put the information in there about their employees, that would allow a quicker electronic match to be made when their employees are trying to have that verification done. So I would encourage any employers who have not already signed up for the SIDES program to use that as a mechanism to expedite the verification around wages."
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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