Unemployment benefits have been a lifeline for many people who have lost work because of the pandemic. But the huge federal expansion of the unemployment insurance program under the CARES Act has required states to handle massive increases in applications for both regular unemployment and for new benefits offered to workers who had never before qualified.
And while Maine has so far been among the best in the country at getting new claims paid, thousands are still awaiting checks, and advocates are calling for an immediate remedy.
Brian Ouellette lives in Leeds and runs a small automotive business. Ouellette just set out on his own this year, after working for someone else until late last year.
When COVID-19 shut down nonessential Maine businesses back in March, Ouellette was shut down too. He says he couldn't operate his business anymore, so he filed for unemployment — which Congress had just made temporarily available to the self-employed.
“This was on March 22. And then about a week later, they announced that self-employed had to wait until they put their system in place.”
Ouellette says he called the Maine Department of Labor and was told that the new Pandemic Unemployment Compensation Program (PUC) wasn't quite ready to process claims, but that he'd be automatically rolled into that program when it came online.
That happened on May 1. But Ouellette didn't get paid, so he kept calling the Department of Labor. At one point, he says he was told he should get regular unemployment insurance from the job he had for part of last year.
“So, ‘I'll fix your claim. I'll send it through. If you don't have your check by next week call us.’ Alright, great. Nothing came. I call back. Talk to a different lady. ‘Well, no, because you quit that job and when self-employed, you're self-employed, you can't get regular employment.’”
Ouellette was eventually scheduled for what is called a "fact finding" call to straighten things out — but he says when the time came, no one ever called him.
“I'm 12 weeks filed right now. And not a dime.”
It's been well-publicized that when the unemployment insurance expansion tied to the CARES Act started, Maine's Department of Labor (DOL) was caught somewhat on the back foot. It had only 13 phone representatives, a computer system that doesn't work well with smartphones and, like every other state, it had to figure out how to implement entirely new programs designed to serve people who don't normally qualify for unemployment.
For people who needed benefits, the wait felt like forever, but compared to other states Maine's actually worked pretty fast. According to a recent report from the progressive think tank the Century Foundation, Maine is in sixth place nationally for paying out new claims.
In a briefing last week DOL Commissioner Laura Fortman told legislators that based on internal numbers, the state has processed and paid about 80 percent of the nearly 150,000 people who filed regular and pandemic unemployment claims between March 15 and June 10.
But, of course, that means about 20 percent of claims have not been paid, which means about 29,000 people are still waiting, some of them since March.
“This is a crisis situation,” says Matt Schlobohm, the executive director of the AFL-CIO of Maine. He says that by his organization's estimation, there are still 3,000 to 5,000 people in the state who, for a variety of reasons have not received unemployment benefits.
He says many of those people have complicated employment situations that make part of their income eligible for regular unemployment and part of it eligible for PUC.
“So they may have worked as a self-employed massage therapist and then also worked as a bartender on the side. And so they have some two income, and they have primarily self-employed income and the system is working to process through that.”
Schlobohm says another 12 people are waiting for "fact finding" calls with DOL representatives, which were supposed to happen within a couple weeks, but are now being scheduled into August.
“And these are folks who have been out-of-work for and have not gotten any income for four or 10 weeks. And we're talking to folks who are having their cars repossessed, who are selling their possessions, and who have reached a level of desperation that is completely unacceptable.”
Commissioner Fortman says the situation is “heartbreaking.”
“There's nothing we can say to that person other than that we are trying to pay benefits as quickly as is humanly possible,” she says.
The Labor department has brought on 24 law students and recent law school graduates for the summer, specifically to help deal with the fact-finding backlog.
Fortman told a legislative committee recently that the state has processed and paid about 80 percent of the nearly 150,000 people who filed regular and pandemic unemployment claims between March 15 and June 10.
And she says the Department has also been focussing on issues that affect large groups of applicants.
“I think we're trying to determine if there are any categories of people who fall into that kind of cluster, and if there are we address them systemically rather than a case-by-case basis.”
And the Department -- working with a short staff and a problematic computer system, has also had to cancel thousands of recent claims found to be fraudulent.
But none of this means much to small business owner Brian Ouellette, who says it's time for the state to get claimants the money they are owed.
“There's a point of frustration that you can reach before you snap. And there's a lot of people in my situation...the only answers that we're being told [are] ‘nothing we can do,’ ‘you just have to wait, be patient.’ Let me take your paycheck for three months and tell you to be patient.”
Ouellette's patience was rewarded, as it turns out — he finally received his full benefit, retroactive to when he first applied back in March — on Monday, June 22.
But there are still plenty of other people waiting. And Schlobohm says the state should either process their benefits as legally required, or make them whole in some other way.
“We think the best way to do that would be a stimulus payment for people who have been waiting at least three weeks with no resolution, in many cases, many more weeks. And it's what we owe folks who have been put through economic misery and because the state has been overwhelmed and overrun.”
The state of Vermont did something similar to this in April, issuing $1,200 advance payments to more than 8,000 claimants.
The most recent weekly numbers for Maine show that about 4,850 people filed new claims for regular or pandemic unemployment. That is down from the week before, but still up nearly 600 percent from that same week last year.