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New Bill Would Reform Maine Unemployment System That Was Overwhelmed During Pandemic

Virus Outbreak
Robert F. Bukaty
Associated Press
In this Sept. 2, 2020, file photo, a shopper walks by one of several vacant retail spaces among the outlet shops in Freeport, Maine.

Lawmakers and advocates are supporting a new bill to reform the state's unemployment system, which was plagued with delays and technical errors after being overwhelmed with hundreds of thousands of claims during the pandemic.

At a hearing on Monday, Maine AFL-CIO Executive Director Matt Schlobohm said he supports legislation creating new "navigators" to help workers navigate the system and help them find new jobs.

He estimates that his group has worked with more than 5,000 laid-off workers from across the state during the pandemic.

"We need to address funding for the department, a decades-long decline in administrative funding. And we need a navigator. We need both things to be stronger for this to work. And the navigator is a supplement to a robust unemployment insurance division that can do the work that it needs to do," Schlobohm says.

Some business and tourism groups opposed the legislation and said employers should have more input before the state makes major changes to its unemployment system.

Two Republican legislators presented bills that would tie the duration of unemployment benefits to the state's unemployment rate.

Maine House Speaker Ryan Fecteau, a Democrat who sponsored the bill, L.D. 1571, says the pandemic exposed long-standing issues with the state's unemployment system, including that only a quarter of eligible Mainers were able to receive benefits in recent years.

He says the proposed legislation would require the Department of Labor to work towards increasing that number, and would also create the new navigator program to assist laid-off workers.

"You'd already have folks who are in our communities, part of organizations, that can be at the ready, when called upon to help the department with responding to claimants, getting folks to file claims successfully and navigate the program," he says.

Another bill from the Maine Department of Labor would expand partial unemployment benefits, and would also allow people forced to leave their job because of child or elder care issues to receive benefits.