Coronavirus crisis: Maine agency swamped by historic number of jobless claims

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The Maine Department of Labor is changing some of the ways it does business during the coronavirus pandemic.

The department is now alphabetizing the order for people calling in to file for new unemployment benefits. Mondays are now for people with last names beginning with A-H. On Tuesdays, it’s people with last names I-Q. And Wednesdays are for everyone else.

“While we hope to have 100 more people answering the phone lines by the end of next week, implementing this new system will ease congestion on our phone lines in the meantime,” Labor Commissioner Laura Fortman said in a press release. “This is an easy way for individuals to take action to improve access for everyone. We are all in this together and we appreciate your help as we navigate these unprecedented times.”

This new system allows residents to file unemployment claims by phone, a change from when claimants had to file online through the ReEmployME portal.

Bard Coffee on Middle Street in Portland is among the businesses closed as a result of Maine’s response to the coronavirus pandemic. Record numbers of Maine workers have applied for unemployment benefits. (Portland Phoenix/Jim Neuger)

The change follows an unprecedented number of Mainers filing for unemployment in the wake of Gov. Janet Mills requiring all non-essential, public-facing businesses to close during a stay-at-home order that continues through most of April. As a result, many individuals have either been laid off or furloughed during the health crisis.

According to department data, approximately 23,800 Mainers filed for unemployment claims in the week ended March 28, the highest weekly total on record. The previous week registered at about 21,500, which was the previous highest total on record. According to the MDOL, these are all significant increases from the week ending March 14 when about 630 initial claims were filed.

“The data today show another week of high levels of initial claims filed and a dramatic increase in weekly unemployment claims due to COVID-19 related business closures and layoffs,” Fortman said. “Although there is an unprecedented surge of applications, staff are working tirelessly to process claims as quickly as possible and last week over $6 million in benefits were received by laid-off Maine workers.”

The department advises Mainers to file online through the ReEmployMe filing system, which has historically had its ups and downs. A handful of years ago, the state’s Ethics Commission investigated the department for intentionally destroying records of claims. This was under a different commissioner appointed during former Gov. Paul LePage’s administration.

ReEmployMe was part of a consortium of four states and was believed to have been rushed into action in Maine, despite interdepartmental concerns the system wasn’t ready at the time.

Mainers continue to be frustrated with the system, however. On Facebook, dozens of people have commented on the MDOL’s page and posts, saying they are unable to file claims or access their benefits.

“So I finally got through,” wrote one Facebook user. “Put in all information and then got a message saying no one was available to take call and it disconnected me.”

Another user wrote ReEmployMe is the “worst” system.

“I’m unemployed,” this user wrote. “Why do you continuously lie to us day after day? I’ve called 46 times already in 18 minutes.”

Another user still wrote it was “impossible” to get through on Monday morning.

“The line is always busy and the automated message says call back later,” this user wrote.

And another user wrote when they finally got through on the phone, there was more bad news.

“There is no one on the phone, just an automated message that says they are too busy and to go to their website and contact them there,” the user wrote.