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AUGUSTA, Maine — The platform Maine uses to manage unemployment benefits buckled under a surge in traffic on Friday as self-employed workers were eligible to file for benefits for the first time, while the state Legislature announced a committee would convene next week to discuss problems with the system.
Nonetheless, more than 3,000 new applications were processed before noon, the Maine Department of Labor said, with “many more thousands” expected to be processed over the weekend. The department advised that applicants could file claims anytime before the end of the day Saturday and still receive benefits on time after the website, ReEmployMe, was slow to load Friday morning or told some users it was “temporarily unavailable.”
The Maine Legislature also announced on Friday that its Labor and Housing Committee would convene on Wednesday for a briefing with Commissioner Laura Fortman to discuss challenges the agency has faced, including technology issues, staff shortages and the complexity of implementing new federal programs. The state house remains closed to the public, though the hearing will be broadcast.
Sen. Heather Sanborn, D-Portland, warned in a Friday afternoon newsletter that an error with the system might put applicants into a fact-finding process that would “substantially delay” their receipt of benefits. A spokesperson for the Department of Labor said, however, that the system was working as intended but that fact-finding interviews might be scheduled for individuals filing under self-employment who also had another job.
Self-employed workers and independent contractors, who make up about 10 percent of Maine’s workforce, could file for unemployment benefits for the first time under the federally funded Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program, which was created as part of a $2.2 trillion stimulus bill at the end of March. Maine lagged some states in implementing the program, citing the need for additional guidance from the federal government.
The Maine Department of Labor said in a Friday morning Facebook post that high demand was causing a “slower than normal” response on the website. The department had previously asked applicants to stagger the times in which they used the website on Friday based on the first letter of their last name.
“There is no change to the timing of benefits if you file anytime between now and Saturday at 11:59 pm,” the agency advised Friday. “If you are experiencing a slow response now, please try again later. All benefits will be paid if you are eligible and will be retroactive.”
Self-employed workers who already applied for regular state unemployment but were told their earnings were insufficient do not need to apply again, Fortman said on Thursday. These claims, she said, would be automatically rolled into the new program.
Unemployment benefits would be available for workers who are eligible within seven days, Fortman said Thursday. They include an additional $600 from the federal government on top of regular benefits for weeks starting in April. Benefits are retroactive to mid-March or when individuals lost work.