The novel coronavirus, or COVID-19, has caused unprecedented economic hardship for Maine people, including thousands who need unemployment support to weather this storm.
In Maine, for the week ending March 21, there were 21,500 new unemployment insurance claims filed compared to 630 claims the previous week — a 3,400 percent increase in just one week. On Monday, March 30, we had over 250,000 calls to the Maine Department of Labor.
The department is working hard to ensure every person who applies for unemployment benefits gets the money they need to help ease the economic stress caused by this crisis.
Department staff is working overtime, including on weekends, to handle the historically high volume of unemployment insurance claims filed, answer calls from concerned Mainers, and help people reset their passwords through the online Live Chat feature.
We have tripled the number of people answering calls by hiring new staff, bringing back retirees and reassigning staff from other areas of the department. Our goal is to have 100 additional people answering phones by the end of next week.
Despite the unprecedented volume of calls and claims, I am proud to report that we paid out over $6 million in benefits during the week of March 23-28.
As the department ramps up its capacity to receive and process claims, we are putting in place a new schedule to help reduce congestion on the unemployment phone lines. Starting Monday, April 6, we are switching to an alphabetical-by-last-name calling schedule. If a caller’s last name begins with A-H, we ask that they call on Monday; I-Q call on Tuesday; R-Z call on Wednesday. Thursday and Friday will be left unassigned for those who miss, or were unable to call, on their alphabetical day. Our unemployment phone line — 1-800-593-7660 — is available between 8 a.m. and 12:15 p.m., Monday-Friday.
The recently enacted federal CARES Act includes new temporary unemployment programs to provide additional relief to people affected by COVID-19. At the direction of Gov. Janet Mills, Maine has opted in to the new federal unemployment programs. The Maine Department of Labor requires guidance from the U.S. Department of Labor in order to implement the new programs. We continue to press for that guidance from the federal department and once we receive it, we will implement the system changes. Claims filed will be processed retroactively to the dates in the law.
Until then, we urge Maine people who would be eligible under these programs to wait to file until the changes are in place. Filing now will result in a denial of benefits even though those applying, in fact, deserve the benefit. Our department wants every Mainer to receive the benefits for which they are eligible during this difficult time. We will post information as we receive it on our social media and website, and encourage all to check there for updates.
The quickest way for Mainers to get unemployment benefits in the meantime is to apply online with a computer. To avoid errors, all filers should review the guide online that explains how to create an account on Maine’s unemployment insurance system, ReEmployME. We’d like to make sure those who need specialized assistance can get through on the phones. And, when you call, please don’t hang up; remain on the line as we work to answer your call.
We understand the frustration and anxiety Maine people are feeling during this challenging time and as we adapt our unemployment insurance system to handle the changing needs. We are all in this together and the Maine Department of Labor will continue to do everything we can to support Mainers who need help.
Laura Fortman is the commissioner of the Maine Department of Labor.