Maine Labor Commissioner Laura Fortman talks with CBS 13 in this 2019 file photo. Credit: BDN file photo

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AUGUSTA, Maine — Maine will streamline processing of 20,000 unemployment claims that were awaiting fact-finding interviews scheduled into July while the coronavirus places unprecedented stress on the system, the state’s labor commissioner said Friday.

The state has seen historic levels of claims in the last month as businesses have shuttered. amid restrictions meant to slow the virus. They have come despite many struggling to apply for benefits and the state lagging in paying benefits to self-employed workers.

[Our COVID-19 tracker contains the most recent information on Maine cases by county]

Despite the massive backlog, record amounts of benefits have been paid in weeks. About two-thirds of the 100,000 people who filed within a five-week period have received benefits totaling over $100 million, Labor Commissioner Laura Fortman said during a Friday press conference. The state paid out $248 million in benefits in all of 2009 amid the Great Recession.

The state has tried to relieve the backlog by hiring 100 additional workers to staff its unemployment benefits hotline and expanded call-in hours. But Fortman said the state will now skip or speed up some fact-finding interviews for some claims that would typically slow an approval down to get benefits to people faster.

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Those interviews are typically scheduled when more information is needed to determine a person’s eligibility. The action will mean about 5,000 people who were scheduled for fact-finding interviews will see their claims approved, while around 7,000 people will have to be denied first before they can apply again. The remainder will see fact-finding interviews sped up.

Deb Cartwright of Topsham, who has worked for L.L. Bean’s manufacturing building in Brunswick for 34 years, filed for unemployment on April 3 after getting two weeks of “pandemic pay” from her employer. That recent income triggered a fact-finding interview set for June 2.

She called the two months without an income “a long time without pay,” though benefits would apply retroactively for Cartwright and other waiting Mainers once they qualify.

Maine has been able to pay out the additional $600 in benefits provided for by the $2.2 trillion federal stimulus package passed last month. But people who are self-employed — a new category under the federal bill — are still unable to receive benefits in the state, even though a majority of states have begun accepting applications under the program.

That category of worker has been advised to hold off on applying as they would be denied while the system is upgraded. It is unknown when that process will be finished, but Gov. Janet Mills said Thursday that she was “hopeful” it would be up and running by the end of April.

Fortman said Friday she is still waiting for guidance from the federal government on how to incorporate self-employed within the current guidelines of the system, which requires people to have lost their jobs through no fault of their own and be willing and able to work.

BDN writer Nick Schroeder contributed to this report.

Watch: Janet Mills says Maine is looking at ‘cautious reopening’

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