Maine Labor Commissioner On The Changing Unemployment Eligibility Rules

Apr 17, 2020

The pace of first-time claims for unemployment in Maine slowed last week, but at about 13,000, are still well above the numbers before the pandemic, which were generally in the hundreds per week.

Eligibility will expand under the new federal CARES act, which made unemployment available for freelance workers, independent contractors and workers who had exhausted their annual benefit.

Maine Labor Commissioner Laura Fortman says the state has expanded eligibility under its own unemployment rules as well.

Ed note: interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Fortman: Normally, in order to be eligible for unemployment insurance, you have to have lost your job through no fault of your own, you have to be able to work, available to work and looking for work. The legislature meets three kinds of key changes. One is that it waived the one week waiting period. They also gave us some flexibility around what it means to be able and available for work.

And then Congress, in the CARES Act, created three parallel unemployment insurance programs that are run concurrently with state unemployment benefits.

And the one that's rolling out next week is the federal pandemic unemployment compensation. And that is a $600 benefit that is paid in addition to whatever benefits someone is eligible for in either the state unemployment insurance system, or there is a new pandemic assistance program that is covering people who are self-employed, 1099s, may not have a strong connection to the workforce, so they may not have worked for a very long period of time, and that is the next program. And then the third program is an extension of unemployment insurance benefits for an additional 13 weeks. And that will be the final piece of federal legislation that we will have available.

Flaherty: Freelancers and independent contractors have not historically been covered by unemployment, but under these new rules, they will be. Is that for both the federal and state versions of unemployment?

They will not be eligible for Maine unemployment, but there is a federal unemployment program now called the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance that will provide a weekly benefit. And again, it won't be more than the maximum weekly state benefit, which is $445 a week, but it will be some amount up to that. Plus, on top of that, the six hundred dollars of the federal pandemic unemployment compensation.

 I know that you are not clairvoyant, but if you could just outline for me, as you understand it, what the timeline is going to be for all three of these programs.

Well, the first one, which is the federal pandemic unemployment compensation, the $600, people will start seeing that next week. The next one that will roll out will be the pandemic unemployment assistance. So this is the one we were just talking about for, you know, 1099 employees, freelancers, self-employed people or otherwise not eligible for an employment. And then the final piece that will roll out will be the additional 13 weeks of benefits for people who have exhausted benefits and are still eligible for unemployment insurance.

 So if I have exhausted my benefits or if I am a freelancer at this point, I should not apply for unemployment, correct?

That is correct. Though we're hoping to have some guidance up on the website with additional information in the next 10 days or so.

So it will be at least 10 days before people in those categories can apply.

Yes.

In an effort to deal with the current and likely future surge in claims, Fortman says her Department has hired many more phone representatives — up to about 100 from only 13 before the pandemic — and will expand calling hours during the week.

Originally published April 16, 2020, at 4:18 p.m. ET.