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Maine Labor Commissioner Peppered With Questions By Lawmakers

Nick Woodward
Maine Public
Screenshot Fortman and Shah speaking at a press briefing April 30

Members of the Maine legislature’s Labor and Housing Committee met in person and electronically with Labor Commissioner Laura Fortman Wednesday afternoon in an unusual hearing on the state's response to the surge in unemployment applications. Committee members had dozens of questions about the problems with providing benefits to tens of thousands of Mainers who've lost work as a result of the pandemic.

Commissioner Fortman repeated her assertion that the Labor Department was simply not ready for the flood of applications it received as workers were laid off during the emergency shutdown that was prompted by the coronavirus pandemic. At one point there were just 13 workers in the agency handling claims and taking hundreds of thousands of phone calls that crashed the phone system. Fortman told lawmakers that her Department has managed to get the phones working and shifted workers to try to handle the load. But some Committee members suggested that there were other options she did not consider.

State Sen. Stacey Guerin, a Republican from Glenburn, pointed to successful emergency construction of computer systems by Amazon and Google in other states to handle the high volume of claims.

“This included the pandemic unemployment assistance program. That was back in early April a month before Maine started accepting the PUA claims. Did you ever reach out to Google for help with the claims system?” asked Guerin.

Fortman replied that “the New York system is very different.”

Guerin says she has spoken with Google officials who told her they could have a new computer system in place in Maine in a week at a cost of $1 million.

Fortman says the primary thing that's needed are more trained staff, not a new computer system. She says what crashed was the phone system, not the computer. She said Gov. Janet Mills has approved the creation of 138 new positions to process claims, which include not just regular state unemployment, but the new federally funded programs for workers not covered by the state program like the self-employed.

Portland Rep. Mike Sylvester, House co-chair of the Committee, says the Department’s difficulty in processing benefits is creating hardships for tens of thousands of Mainers who are hard-pressed to pay bills.

Fortman says she hopes to provide more information about the backlog and the number of people waiting for benefits later this week. She points out that while there have been problems getting assistance, tens of thousands of Mainers have received hundreds of millions of dollars in benefits.

Meanwhile, the Maine AFL-CIO and Maine Equal Justice are calling on lawmakers to do a sweeping review of the state unemployment system to ensure that workers who have lost their jobs are helped.

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