AUGUSTA, Maine — A bill aimed to fight unemployment fraud and tighten eligibility for benefits was approved by the Legislature’s Labor Committee this week, but the legislation likely faces fights on the House and Senate floors.
LD 1725, sponsored by Sen. Chris Rector, R-Thomaston, would make a number of changes to how the state distributes benefits for those who are unemployed.
As more and more people are making claims for unemployment, the bill attempts to crack down on the potential for fraudulent claims, decreases the amount of time someone can receive benefits while looking for a job that fits their comparable skill and wage and eliminates a provision that allows recipients to collect benefits while they are receiving any unused vacation pay.
Rector said if people are collecting back vacation pay and unemployment, they are getting two paychecks when some are getting none. He said the other piece urges unemployed workers to look outside their respective fields in a shorter period of time in order to help them find a job.
“The longer you are out of work, the more challenging it is to find work,” he said. “So, even if it’s not the ideal job for you, we want people to be trying.”
The bill passed along strict party lines in the Labor Committee, setting the stage for debate when it’s up for votes in the House and Senate.
The minority report from Democrats on the committee would retain existing law surrounding workers’ earned vacation pay and maintain 12 weeks as the amount of time a worker has to search for employment at his or her prior wage level.
“It’s hard to understand why the Legislature is focused on making it harder for workers to get this type of support during the worst economic climate since the Great Depression,” said Robyn Merrill of Maine Equal Justice Partners. “We all know that Maine people searching for jobs are already having a tough time finding work. Why would we want to make unemployed workers take jobs they’re not suited for instead of utilizing their skills for the benefit of themselves and the economy?”
Although Rector sponsored the bill, it originated from the governor’s office. Gov. Paul LePage has pledged to stamp out fraud in a variety of areas during his administration, including in unemployment benefits.
But U.S. Department of Labor statistics show that Maine has the lowest unemployment fraud rate in New England and the fifth lowest in the country.
“Fraud is not a big issue, but inasmuch as it exists, we want to eliminate it,” Rector said.
The Maine Working Families Coalition, a broad group of nonprofits and advocacy organizations, has opposed LD 1725 on the basis that it would roll back jobless benefits to those in need.
“With so many Maine people struggling to make ends meet in the worst recession since the Great Depression, we should be working together to find ways to create jobs — not to punish those who have lost theirs,” said Laura Harper of the Maine Women’s Lobby.
Added Matt Schlobohm, director of the Maine AFL-CIO: “Workers shouldn’t be penalized by having their unemployment insurance delayed just because they had earned vacation time on the books when they were laid off.”