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Labor Advocates Say Maine's Unemployment System Was Undermined Well Before The Pandemic Struck

Robert F. Bukaty
A Mexican restaurant remains closed under current orders to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus, Friday, May 8, 2020, in South Portland, Maine.

Much of the aid that Congress has provided to Americans in financial hardship because of the COVID-19 pandemic has come in the form of vastly expanded unemployment insurance program.

UI started during the New Deal, and it hasn’t changed all that much since then.

But under the federal CARES act, UI now also covers independent contractors, people who’ve been temporarily furloughed as a result of COVID-19 and those who are quarantined but expect to return to work.

Organizations that advocate for poor people and workers say these benefits should have already been in place, because America’s workforce is now made up of many more low-wage, part-time or self-employed people.

Matt Schlobohm, the executive director of the Maine AFL-CIO, spoke with All Things Considered host Nora Flaherty about what the COVID-19 crisis is revealing about the unemployment insurance system and how he’d like to see it changed.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

Rebecca Conley
Maine Public

Scholobohm: The federal Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program that has been put in place has helped a lot of people gain access to unemployment insurance. But it begs the fundamental question, why do we need an emergency program for huge numbers of workers in Maine and around the country to have access to unemployment insurance?

We should not have to have a special PUA program so that the Uber or Lyft driver, or the hairdresser, or the logger, or the lobsterman or the genuine independent contractor can access unemployment insurance. They should have a right to that program, they should have the ability if they get laid off through no fault of their own, to get benefits like anyone else.

Flaherty: Here in Maine coming into this pandemic, what does or what did our unemployment insurance system look like?

I think it’s fair to say the system was deeply neglected during the LePage era and there was an ideological hostility to having a system that provided workers economic security. So you saw the governor directly try to influence unemployment insurance hearing officers and shape the outcomes of the unemployment cases they were deciding on. You saw a system that had major technological change during the LePage era, and a complete indifference to whether people could get through, could have their claims processed. And you saw a lot of good people who knew the system well, worked in the Department of Labor for a long time, leave state service at that time. And you saw unfilled positions, short staffing, a decline in administrative funding.

So it is fair to say that we went into this pandemic and this new administration with a system that had been deeply neglected, and that had been undermined, with an ideological hostility to providing economic security to workers for eight years of a Gov. LePage administration. I would say the current Department of Labor has been working, pre-pandemic, to revitalize the system, to make it more responsive to people and to have it be more functional. But those underlying issues have come home to roost in this moment and have created a perfect storm where we see record levels of people applying and we see deep problems with short staffing and technological glitches and difficulty of the system to respond in the way it needs to.

The PUA program and the other changes to unemployment insurance right now are temporary, they are set to expire at some point. After this is over, what specifically needs to happen from your perspective?

Credit Twitter
Matt Schlobohm

Yeah, a number of important things need to happen at both the state and federal level because this is a joint federal-state program. And I think the first is we have to look at this whole issue of the recipiency rate. We have to look at why it is that 3 out of 4 laid-off workers in Maine typically do not get unemployment insurance when they’re laid off. We have to look at whether we have a system that is covering the workforce of today, and the answer is we do not, so we have to modernize and upgrade the system.

We think many more workers should be eligible. We think we need to adapt the system so that low-wage workers have just as much ease gaining benefits as higher-wage workers. Part-time workers, seasonal workers and gig workers should have access to unemployment insurance benefits. We need to provide meaningful administrative funding, which requires a congressional fix, that has been chipped away at for years.

So we need the federal government to act to modernize this program, and then we need the state to act on the pieces that state has control over to modernize and upgrade them, so many more workers qualify, we have stronger benefits, we have more generous benefits, it’s much easier to apply and it gives people that security and faith that if they get laid off, they’re going to access unemployment benefits.

This interview is part of our series “Deep Dive: Coronavirus.” For more in the series, visit mainepublic.org/coronavirus.

Nora is originally from the Boston area but has lived in Chicago, Michigan, New York City and at the northern tip of New York state. Nora began working in public radio at Michigan Radio in Ann Arbor and has been an on-air host, a reporter, a digital editor, a producer, and, when they let her, played records.