AUGUSTA, Maine — With the recession continuing, hundreds of Mainers have exhausted all of their unemployment benefits and hundreds more are expected to run out by the time Congress ends its vacation after Labor Day.
“We should have passed an extension, and we should have stayed in until we did,” said Democratic U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud of Maine’s 2nd District. “People are hurting and those whose benefits will run out during the month of August — they will be hurting even more.”
He said unemployment compensation is one of the most effective tools to help stabilize the economy and foster a recovery. He said studies indicate an economic benefit of $1.63 for every dollar of unemployment benefits.
The Maine Department of Labor estimates that 419 Mainers have already exhausted their maximum of 79 weeks of benefits. The department also estimates that by the time Congress is back in session next month, the total will be about 953.
“I want to stress that these are projections,” said Labor Commissioner Laura Fortman. “They are estimates.”
She said that before people exhaust their unemployment benefits, they are notified of other benefits they may be eligible to receive, for example, under the Trade Adjustment Act. She said her agency does not track individuals who may move from one program to another, so it can only estimate how many have totally exhausted their benefits.
“We should have acted on an extension,” said U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine. “Unfortunately, the Democratic leaders in both the House and Senate that control the schedule did not do so.”
She said why they did not bring an extension bill up for consideration is baffling. She said lawmakers were well aware that the extended benefits passed under the recovery act would start running out this month and that the recession is continuing.
“It is encouraging that unemployment actually dropped slightly, but it is still at extremely high levels,” Collins said. “We need to extend benefits until this economy is recovering and we should act as soon as we are back into session.”
Democratic U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree of Maine’s 1st District said she and other Democrats had urged their leadership to stay in session and continue work on needed legislation, including an extension of benefits and health care reform.
“I argued we should stay all month and get health reform done,” Pingree said. “There is a lot of work before us.”
She said it will be very hard for her and other members of Congress to explain to constituents who have exhausted their unemployment benefits why Congress did not act before the traditional August recess.
“I think that when you have a gap like this in these hard economic times, we need to do everything we can to help them get through it,” Pingree said. “This should be our first priority when we go back into session.”
U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, said she has supported every extension of unemployment benefits that has been proposed in the current economic downturn.
“I have a long-standing commitment to providing assistance to hardworking Mainers who, through no fault of their own, have been hurt by the worst economic conditions facing our nation since World War II,” she said. “I look forward to working with my colleagues on a responsible extension for those states experiencing unusually high unemployment rates.”
Snowe said Maine has received $28.2 million to modernize its unemployment benefits delivery system as the result of a measure she co-sponsored. She said that to someone who is unemployed, the ability to get benefits in a timely manner can be nearly as important as getting the benefits.
Both Michaud and Pingree said they will support making the extended benefits retroactive. They said a person should not be penalized because of the inaction by Congress.
“So many people get behind when they have lost their job, and they use their credit cards and borrow money,” Pingree said. “They need all the help they can get.”
The statistics from the Department of Labor indicate the recession is continuing in Maine. The June unemployment rate of 8.5 percent translates to 59,864 Mainers who were out of work and looking for work. That is more than the entire population of Knox and Piscataquis counties combined.
That number does not include what the department calls “discouraged workers,” Mainers who have given up on looking for a job after they have exhausted all benefits.