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Past Staff Cuts At Department of Labor Slow Unemployment Payments

The Maine Department of Labor has been struggling to handle huge numbers of applications for unemployment benefits because of the pandemic, and those numbers are expected to grow with the passage of a new federally-funded program.

Thousands of laid off Mainers have had difficulty getting unemployment benefits, even though the state says over $6 million in payments went out last week. There have been many complaints about the new computerized claims processing system that was implemented two years ago, but those with oversight of the agency say the real problem has been inadequate staffing.

“The Department of Labor and the Mills Administration have done an admirable job of trying to train new personnel as quickly as possible, but the Department was drastically reduced under the LePage administration,” says state Senator Shenna Bellows, a Democrat from Manchester, who co-chairs the Labor and Housing Committee.

Labor Commissioner Laura Fortman, who had earlier headed the Department during the 2008 recession, says she had far more staffers to handle the claims process then. She says efforts are underway to add positions as quickly as possible.

“When this started a couple of weeks ago we had thirteen people on a Monday, we had fourteen on Tuesday,” Fortman says. :We’ve added another 15 people or so and are bringing five more on.”

And Fortman says these workers will be handling far more claims. In the first week’s wave of coronavirus layoffs, about 21,500 applications were filed. That is about the same volume as the worst month of the 2008 recession. She says despite the complaints, the new computer system has helped in the effort to handle the high numbers of claims. But she is worried that even more will be generated by the new federal benefit program that covers far more people than traditional unemployment, “such as self-insured people, people whose benefits are exhausted, people who are staying home because their children are home from school because of the virus.”

Fortman says people have been trying to apply for the program even though the application does not yet exist. She says as soon as federal officials provide the rules for the program, hopefully this week, the state will set up its application process.

Journalist Mal Leary spearheads Maine Public's news coverage of politics and government and is based at the State House.