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Pandemic Highlights Deficiencies In Maine's Unemployment Application Process

via Tammie Stone

More than 100,000 Mainers have filed for unemployment since March. That's just one of the many wide-ranging economic effects of COVID-19. The claims have overwhelmed the Department Of Labor in Maine. And while the state has been able to get benefits to more than 70,000 people so far, many are still waiting.

Like thousands of Mainers, Tammie Stone was laid off from her job in mid-March. She was a night cook at a restaurant in Windham, but the COVID-19 pandemic forced it to close.

“I was devastated,” she says. “It's going to be a significant pay drop for me. So I'm devastated over it. I'm scared. I just don't know what's going to happen.”

As soon as she heard the news, Stone applied for unemployment insurance. But more than a month later, the benefits have yet to come. The mother of two from Casco has struggled to navigate a system that's been overburdened with more than 100,000 claims since the pandemic began. Stone says her application was held up because of an issue reporting her wages, but she continued filing and sending paperwork.

Every day she calls the Department, sometimes hundreds of times, trying to speak with a specialist so she can resolve the case. Without the assistance, she says she's having a hard time trying to pay for food, housing and essentials for her children.

“I just wish somebody could contact me and let me know where I'm at in this situation,” says Stone. “What do I need to do? Am I just lost in the system? It's what it makes me feel like.”

Matt Schlobohm is the executive director of the Maine AFL-CIO.

"This crisis is, across the country, showing the weaknesses and the fault lines and the holes in our social safety net as a whole, and unemployment insurance in particular," says Schlobohm.

He says that while the state has done an admirable job getting payments to tens of thousands of people over the span of just a few weeks, his organization has heard from many who are still waiting. Those include self-employed workers, those who have run into issues around monetary eligibility, and others who may have made small mistakes on applications.

Twenty-year-old Hope Hartsgrove of Newport says she has yet to receive her benefits because of an "insufficient wage claim." She says an appointment with the Department was originally scheduled for June.

“My question is, what am I supposed to do until June? Like, you're going to fit me in for June, but the problem is right now.”

Maine Labor Commissioner Laura Fortman says the state unemployment system has faced unprecedented demand over the past few weeks. Additional staff have been brought in to handle claims. The Department has contracted with a call center, and staff are working nights and weekends.

The Department also announced last week that it was waiving fact-finding interviews for about 20,000 cases. Fortman says about 5,000 of those claims were approved, 7,000 were denied, and the rest are receiving expedited reviews. Fortman says that process will continue through the end of May.

“But what this did was it kind of provided some certainty for people who were in that holding pattern.”

And Fortman says residents who have been ruled ineligible for state unemployment are likely eligible for the federal Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program, which will begin accepting applications Friday morning.

“And since their information is already in our system, we are not making them go through a re-application process.”

The program will also cover independent contractors and self-employed residents, including farmers and fishermen.

Matt Schlobohm, with the Maine AFL-CIO, is encouraged by those actions, and he says he's heard from several laid-off workers that have had their claims resolved.

But he hopes these issues highlight the need to invest in a more modern system that covers more workers and offers more administrative support.

“We need to adequately fund these programs at the administrative level to work smoothly. And I think one of the things that will come out of this is that the urgency, the need and the push to strengthen and improve an unemployment insurance system for the 21st century will really take root and will happen,” says Scholbohm. “Not as fast as we need it to, but it will happen, and it will make a big difference going forward.”

In Casco, Tammie Stone is still waiting for unemployment assistance. Stone says she's been forced to ask for help online to pay for heat and cover other bills.

“Just a cord of wood is $175 to $225. So, my bank, my lights, my phone, my daughter's essential items. Essential items for our home.”

In the meantime, Stone says, she's still calling the state, hoping that her claim can finally be resolved.

Originally published 5:49 p.m. April 29, 2020