21,000 Mainers could lose jobless benefits

Posted Nov. 15, 2010, at 6:59 p.m.
Last modified Nov. 21, 2010, at 7:09 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — Thousands of Maine residents will lose their unemployment benefits during the next few months, unless Congress acts before the end of the month to extend them as it has in the past to help those hit by the recession, Maine’s labor commissioner told lawmakers Monday.

“If Congress does not act by the end of November, those extended and emergency unemployment programs will end, and it will impact roughly 21,500 Maine people over the next several months,” Commissioner Laura Fortman told the Appropriations Committee.

“There’s been a lot of press recently talking about ‘the 99ers.’ There’s this sense out there that most people collecting unemployment benefits are eligible to collect for 99 weeks,” Fortman added. “In Maine, even with all of the extensions our upper limit was 93 weeks because our unemployment rate, as horrible as it has been, has not been at those maximum levels.”

Extended benefits had been available because Maine’s unemployment rate exceeded 8 percent for several months. However, September’s 7.7 percent rate resulted in a three-month average unemployment rate of 7.9 percent in the state, triggering a federal law that reduces the number of weeks of available benefits.

“Most people do not realize that if the … federal extensions don’t happen, any Maine resident who began collecting unemployment after the first week in June of this year will only be eligible for a maximum of 26 weeks of unemployment,” the commissioner said.

Responding to a committee member’s question, Fortman said she hasn’t heard “particularly encouraging news” that Congress will act to extend benefits.

Congressional Republicans have said they want spending cuts of $5 billion to $6 billion a month as a condition for extending emergency unemployment benefits. This summer, Maine Republican Sens. Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe broke with their party to give Democrats the needed 60 votes to pass the most recent of several extensions.

Monday’s meeting was the Appropriations Committee’s last before the newly elected Legislature is seated on Dec. 1.