BANGOR, Maine — The current large number of unemployment claims in Maine means that people are pretty busy at the Maine Department of Labor.
So busy, in fact, that the department is hiring 10 employees to help handle its telephones, which are ringing off the hook with all the new jobless applicants.
“We’re looking at a sharp trending upward in the number of claims,” Adam Fisher of the Labor Department said Tuesday. “We know it’s hard out there.”
That’s something that Bill Chute of Eddington knows firsthand.
Chute, 58, has worked for an RV dealership for the last five years. Last summer’s high gas prices and economic slowdown took a toll on his workplace and then on Chute, whose last workday was Oct. 4.
“It slowed down to the point where I guess they couldn’t afford to pay us,” the affable Eddington man said before getting his resume updated at the CareerCenter in Bangor. “You’ve got to pick the pieces up.”
In September, the state counted 6,036 initial, continued and emergency extended unemployment claims. That’s an 87 percent increase over the same month last year, although the emergency extension for unemployment benefits was part of this summer’s economic stimulus package and therefore was not available last year.
Not counting the emergency extension for benefits, unemployment claims have jumped 58 percent over the last year.
The seasonally adjusted September unemployment rate in Maine was 5.6 percent, up from 4.9 percent in September 2007. The adjusted national rate for September was 6.1 percent, up from 4.7 percent the preceding year.
“National economic trends are being felt by workers and businesses in Maine,” Maine Labor Commissioner Laura Fortman said in a statement last week.
One particularly worrisome element to the increased claims is that the state’s usual slow season for employment happens in January and February after the Christmas retail season is over and before the summer seasonal work begins. Fisher said that he doesn’t expect the numbers to go down anytime soon.
Labor Department officials were granted an exception from the current state government hiring freeze because all the positions are 100 percent funded by the federal government, he said.
“Unemployment [insurance] helps the workers and their families, but it also helps the community as a whole,” Fisher said.
The help available at the CareerCenter has proved useful for Chute, whose resume tells the recent history of Maine’s economy. When he was still in high school, Chute worked summers for the Eastern Fine Paper mill in Brewer. He worked there for 32 years until he lost his job when the mill shut down in 2004.
He went to the CareerCenter then, too, before he found his new career in RV sales. Now Chute is hoping to find a good job, perhaps with the Census Bureau.
“I was making a pretty reasonable wage, but it’s hard to get that now,” he said. “I don’t want just a part-time job.”
Kim Landry of the Training & Development Corp. in Bangor is his plan manager. She said that before the economy swings back up, a lot of job hunters — and businesses — may have to alter their expectations.
“I think we have to adjust to change and start doing things differently,” she said. “People are just going to have to step back and reprioritize a little bit.”