AUGUSTA, Maine — More than 2,000 Mainers who have exhausted their unemployment insurance benefits will get new aid within weeks, after President Obama signed the latest benefits extension into law last week.
Another 11,000-plus also should be spared from loss of benefits in the next few months.
The federal measure provides for 14 weeks of additional unemployment benefits for all states and an additional six weeks for states with unemployment rates of 8.5 percent or greater, which includes Maine, according to state Labor Commissioner Laura Fortman.
“We are still awaiting guidance on this latest extension,” Fortman said, “but we plan to do as we have with the other extensions passed by Congress. We will be sending a letter to everyone that has exhausted their benefits with a paper application for them to file for these benefits.”
This is the fourth benefit program extension passed by Congress, each slightly different.
“We are still figuring out exactly how this one will work,” Fortman said.
As of Oct. 31, 11,443 Mainers were receiving extended federal benefits under one of the three extended programs, with an average benefit of about $266 a week. In addition, 12,477 were receiving state benefits with an average payment of about $275 a week.
U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, voted for the extension and believes at least one additional extension will be needed before the recession gives way to job growth. The State Economic Forecast Commission is not projecting net job growth in Maine until next summer, possibly late summer.
“The unemployment benefit extension is lagging in terms of those who have already experienced an expiration of their benefits,” Snowe said. “We need to provide these extensions in a timely manner to help those in need get through this recession.”
Fortman said it was the week of Aug. 8, 2009, when the first Mainers exhausted all benefits they were eligible for under state and federal law. The state program provides 26 weeks of benefits and the federal programs had various terms with differing end dates.
Since August, the Department of Labor estimates that 2,400 have exhausted all benefits. Under the new extension, they now may apply again for benefits, but those benefits are prospective.
“We need to make the next extension more timely so that benefits are not exhausted before the new program begins,” Snowe said.
The extension last week was supported by the entire state congressional delegation, even though passage was delayed for weeks in the Senate. Second District Rep. Mike Michaud, D-Maine, said the extension was crucial to helping families weather the recession that has been longer and deeper than many expected and he will support a further extension if one is needed.
“I am hopeful that our economy starts to show promising signs of recovery so that another extension is not required,” he said. “However, if it is, I stand ready to act.”
Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, also supported the extension arguing unemployment insurance is a safety net for workers who have lost their jobs in the recession and need help until work again becomes available.
“Maine’s unemployment rate is below the national average, but too many people continue to struggle to find work,” she said.
First District Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, said an estimated 5,000 Mainers would have lost their benefits by the end of the year without the extension, in what is predicted to be a cold winter.
“With winter and the holidays fast approaching, this is not the time to let these critical benefits run out for the people who have been hardest hit by the recession,” she said. “Every $1 we invest in unemployment benefits generates $1.61 in spending. That’s money that goes directly into the local economy to pay for necessities like rent, heating and groceries.”
Fortman said the economic impact of unemployment benefits is a key part of the safety net during this recession, helping not only workers but also businesses throughout the state. She said economists have long said that unemployment insurance benefits help to get through a recession because of the broad impact the spending of the benefits have on all sectors of the economy.
The Maine Department of Labor reported last month that the state’s unemployment rate dropped by 0.1 percentage point to 8.5 percent between August and September.
Federal officials announced last week that the national unemployment rate had reached 10.2 percent, the first time it topped 10 percent since April 1983.