AUGUSTA, Maine (AP) — Maine government is under a mandatory curtailment order, but Gov. John Baldacci has waived it to hire additional Labor Department staff to deal with a growing caseload of unemployment claims across the state.
Baldacci approved the filling of 48 positions on Thursday. Those include call center operators, translators, counselors and economists.
The problems were caused as Maine’s unemployment rate grew to 6.3 percent at a time when some Labor Department jobs have been left vacant for a year.
Labor Commissioner Laura Fortman said the extra positions will help provide services that are “desperately needed.”
With call center operators overwhelmed, the processing of an initial claim has slowed from 10 days to more than three weeks. In response, the department instituted emergency Saturday hours and even had the commissioner and other senior staff opening mail and making photocopies.
Legislators have questioned why key department positions couldn’t have been filled more quickly. Baldacci aide David Farmer said the hiring freeze announced by the governor in November was aimed at slowing the hiring process and evaluating every opening in light of Maine’s budget shortfall.
The fact that some jobs are federally funded, as some critics have noted, shouldn’t matter because the money still comes from taxpayers, Farmer said.
Fortman said she has been told to hire her new employees from the state list of laid-off workers.