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Maine Dept. of Labor Commissioner defends handling of unemployment claims

‘Thousands of Mainers have gone seven weeks without a paycheck…this is completely unacceptable.’

AUGUSTA, Maine — The Maine Committee on Labor and Housing held a briefing with Maine Department of Labor (MDOL) Commissioner Laura Fortman Wednesday afternoon to discuss mounting frustrations Mainers are facing with the unemployment system amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Fortman had been called to appear before the Committee because of hundreds of complaints to Legislators from Mainers frustrated by the many problems accessing unemployment benefits. There have been repeated complaints for the past two months of laid-off workers having to make hundreds of phone calls to reach someone at the MDOL, frustration with technical problems, and issues using the agency’s computer system.

The Committee is comprised of various state lawmakers, including senators and representatives from districts all over Maine. And while $240 million in unemployment benefits has been paid out to more than 70,000 Mainers over the past seven weeks, the Committee and Fortman met to discuss system problems and the tens of thousands of people who have yet to receive benefits.

“I have heard from hundreds of Mainers who see the department’s and the Mills’ administration’s response as completely inadequate and an utter failure,” Sen. Stacey Geurin (R-District 10) said to Fortman at the briefing. “Thousands of Mainers have gone seven weeks without a paycheck. To me, this is completely unacceptable.”

The meeting focused on issues surrounding the unemployment phone helplines, the online system, staffing, benefits, the new Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) program, and the unemployment system itself.

WATCH FULL HEARING

Fortman and other committee members joined the meeting remotely, and after some technical difficulties with the remote audio were resolved, Fortman made a statement to kick off the briefing.

Fortman defended her department’s handling of the huge surge of unemployment claims, caused by the COVID-19 crisis.

Fortman said her department had been understaffed before the crisis began, and was immediately overwhelmed by the number of people seeking benefits. She told lawmakers they brought in people from other parts of the agency and other agencies of the state government to help answer phones and also hired a call center company to add more people. Fortman said they have improved response time significantly, but lawmakers said they still har many complaints.

Fortman explained staffing is one of their biggest obstacles. The MDOL increased its staff from 13 to 30 in the beginning weeks and is still working on implementing additional staff.

“It’s not just getting additional people,” she said, “[…] traditional training is impossible to achieve.”

The Department is working with L.L. Bean to help hire and train new staff. Fortman and Kimberly Smith, Deputy Commissioner of the MDOL, said 138 new positions will be filled in phases over the next few weeks.

She explained what the MDOL has done since the coronavirus pandemic reached Maine and thousands of Mainers have been out of work as a result. Fortman said 110,000 people have filed for unemployment benefits in the last seven weeks, which is more than the past three years combined, and 75,000 people are currently receiving benefits.

“But behind this extraordinary statistic are real people,” Fortman said. “They are our neighbors, our friends, our loved ones – people who are hurting and need our help.”

RELATED: 'It's been two months without a paycheck': Mainers face desperation over unprocessed unemployment claims amid COVID-19

Commissioner Fortman's complete opening statement:

The Department’s communication system has been overwhelmed with the influx of phone calls and people trying to resolve their claim issues.

Fortman said, “This has been frustrating for everyone. Frustrating for those who can’t get through to speak with us, frustrating for those who are waiting for their benefits, frustrating for my staff, and frustrating for me personally. I am committed to making sure that every Maine person who is eligible for these programs gets the benefits they deserve.”

One senator sharply criticized the Commissioner for not getting outside help to upgrade the computer system. Sen. Geurin made note of outside companies—such as Google and Amazon—that are available to help create systems and have helped other states with their unemployment systems.

Sen. Geurin said Rhode Island went to Amazon to help replace their inadequate computer system, and that New York went to Google for help. Guerin asked why Maine didn’t do the same thing, to get benefits moving faster—even saying Google officials told her they invited Maine to use them.

“New York State reached out to Google in early April, and they created a new system in a week," Guerin said. “Did you ou ever reach out to Google?”

Fortman replied that they did not, because their computer system is only a few years old and in good condition.

“Our system has never crashed. The phones have crashed our system has worked,” Fortman said.

“It was my judgment that we were better…that Maine people would be better served to get benefits out to them than to try to recreate a system during a crisis,” Fortman later said about creating a new system. She explained that back in February before the health crisis hit, the Department had been looking at ways to improve the system.

The current system was rolled out in 2017—before Fortman headed the MDOL—and even back then showed signs of issues, Committee Chair Sen. Shenna Bellows (D-District 14) said. Rep. Lawrence Lockman (R-District 137) later bit back at Bellows for inferring that the current problems are former Gov. Paul LePage’s fault.

“How predictable of you to blame this mess on Paul LePage,” Lockman said.

RELATED: Governor Mills convenes committee to advise on Maine's economic recovery amid coronavirus, COVID-19

Fortman and some Committee members continued to emphasize that no one could have predicted COVID-19 or the unprecedented effect it would have on the state economy—and on the unemployment system.

The unemployment system as a whole was created in the 1930s in response to the Great Depression, Fortman explained, and since then had served to temporarily help people who are out of work from no fault of their own. But now, the system is faced with untraditional circumstances, and the system had to quickly adapt to accommodate those who weren’t previously eligible.

Fortman said that 70% to 80% of those seeking benefits have now received them, but some of the lawmakers challenged that, saying they still hear from many people who are frustrated by continuing delays accessing benefits.

Several lawmakers suggested the MDOL website needs to be more user-friendly, and provide features commonly used in other websites that would make it easier to use. Fortman said she would consider those suggestions.

Fortman said the current online system was never in danger of crashing. “It was not new technology that we needed, it was staffing.”

The Legislative Committee has oversight over the MDOL but cannot order any immediate changes.

Fortman repeatedly defended her staff and cited their spending extra days and long hours trying to deal with the deluge of unemployment claims. She became emotional at one point, appearing to choke up as she praised and thanked the staff for their efforts.

Fortman said there would be new totals of benefits announced Thursday, and that by next week they would be able to announce more people receiving benefits.

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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: /coronavirus

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