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AUGUSTA, Maine — Maine still has not expanded unemployment insurance to self-employed workers and independent contractors even as more than half of states are taking applications and a few are giving benefits to those newly eligible workers.
Assistance for self-employed workers who are out of work due to the coronavirus was part of a $2.2 trillion federal stimulus bill that passed in late March. The federal government issued guidance for the program, Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, on April 5.
A Bangor Daily News review of state government websites found that more than two dozen had begun accepting applications as of Thursday, while several others said that the program would be up and running by the end of April. A handful of states, including Iowa and Louisiana, have begun to distribute money to self-employed workers, according to news reports.
Maine is not among those states. Early this month, the Maine Department of Labor said it was awaiting directions from the federal government to begin implementing the program. It received that guidance two weeks ago. A department spokesperson said Thursday the state is still working to develop a web application that interfaces with its ReEmployMe system.
Gov. Janet Mills said at a Thursday news conference that Maine’s slow implementation of the program was due to a “combination of things” and other governors told her many states were having similar problems. She said the state would be participating in a webinar on Friday to get a better understanding of what documents the state needed in order to assess the income of self-employed workers.
There is no set date for when the program might be available. Mills, a Democrat, said she was “hopeful” the program would be up and running by the end of April, but that the state had to proceed with caution because it had been warned by the federal government that it needed to implement the program properly or risked losing funding.
Two other New England states, Rhode Island and Connecticut, use the same system for unemployment benefits that Maine does. Rhode Island opted to build an entirely separate platform for self-employed workers and launched it two weeks ago. Connecticut has said that it will have its program up and running by April 30.
More than 100,000 workers in Maine have filed traditional unemployment claims over the past five weeks as the coronavirus-induced economic shutdown has rocked many industries. Benefits through the new program are retroactive, so once it is in effect, Maine workers should be able to get benefits dating back to when they stopped working.
Unincorporated self-employed workers make up 10 percent of Maine’s labor force, compared to just 6 percent nationally. The delay in rolling out the program to support them poses significant stress for self-employed workers such as Mike Hardy, an Oakland house painter who said he stopped working in mid-March to do his part in preventing the spread of the virus.
“The federal government tried to rain money down on us, it’s just caught up in logistics, I guess,” Hardy said. “But it seems to me that if more people were hurting, maybe they would do something faster.”
Hardy, who has three children, recently received a $1,200 stimulus check from the federal government, and said he had accessed food stamps and rental assistance while waiting for the unemployment assistance program to launch.
He said he was concerned that, even when the state formally launched the program for self-employed workers, people might not get benefits immediately due to the Maine Department of Labor’s documented struggles in handling a heavy call volume. He was also concerned that delays might lead some self-employed people to go back to work before it was safe.
“When someone is hungry for food, they do things they wouldn’t normally do,” Hardy said. “In this case, it could be to take virus risks.”
Watch: Janet Mills says Maine is looking at ‘cautious reopening’