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AUGUSTA, Maine — Thousands of Mainers who have exhausted unemployment insurance over the last year are ineligible for benefits even though two separate programs aim to give them extensions due to the coronavirus-caused economic slowdown.
Typically, an individual can only use state unemployment benefits for 26 weeks within a yearlong period, but the CARES Act, a coronavirus stimulus bill that passed Congress at the end of March, added an additional 13 weeks of eligibility. It is funded by the federal government under a program known as Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation.
But Maine is still working through how to implement that program, particularly as it intersects with a longstanding one that extends benefits when statewide unemployment passes a certain threshold. For now, the more than 2,000 people who saw their benefits expire over the previous six months, including 650 in March alone, are unable to receive unemployment insurance as they encounter a job market with few hiring prospects.
More than 15 percent of the state’s workforce has filed for unemployment since early March amid the pandemic. Maine has struggled to process record claims and lagged behind others in implementing a new program expanding benefits to self-employed people.
Under Maine statute, 13 weeks of extended benefits already kick in through a different program if the average number of individuals receiving unemployment insurance each week over the previous three-month period exceeds 5 percent of the labor force. As unemployment claims soared recently as states shut down businesses, Maine has inched closer to that threshold.
The federal government told states in early April that workers are eligible for extended benefits under the CARES Act if they are unemployed for a reason relating to the coronavirus and they “have exhausted all rights to regular compensation” under state or federal law, though it also says regular extended benefits can be “deferred” if an individual is eligible for both programs.
Maine Department of Labor spokesperson Jessica Picard said in a Monday email that the state was coordinating the order and timing of the new program with programs that already exist, including regular unemployment and the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program, to “make the movement between them a smooth transition for claimants.”
She noted that benefits administered through the Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation program will be retroactive, and said that people whose benefits have expired should continue filing claims as the state works to connect the new program with existing ones.
Many states are still working to implement the new federal program, though a few, including Alabama and Alaska, have already launched it. At least one state, Nevada, has hit the threshold to activate its regular extended benefits program.
The delay in benefits comes at a particularly bad time in Maine, where the prevalence of seasonal work means that the number of people exhausting benefits usually peaks in April.
Statewide unemployment in Maine was fairly low prior to the coronavirus epidemic, but it was higher in parts of the state where local economies are more centered around tourism and other seasonal industries, sitting above 5 percent in Hancock, Washington and Aroostook counties.
Hiring usually picks up in the late spring as Maine prepares for millions of tourists. But hiring now is slower, or nearly nonexistent in parts of the state.
The delay in setting up extended benefits is frustrating people like Benjamin Hutchins of Millinocket, who had been looking for work since his publishing job was outsourced to India last summer. Hutchins saw his benefits expire at the end of March. He has been checking the Maine Department of Labor website often for updates on when the new federal program might kick in.
He called the agency about a separate issue regarding his earlier benefits last week, getting through once only to be directed to several different individuals and placed on hold for more than an hour, he said, before the call dropped and he gave up.
“I’m angry at the system and not the people,” Hutchins said. “I’m trying not to take it personally.”
Watch: State labor commissioner speaks to unemployed Mainers