Labor Commissioner Laura Fortman speaks remotely during a May 6 legislative committee meeting in Augusta.

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AUGUSTA, Maine — Maine has greatly increased its capacity to handle unemployment calls since mid-March and plans to hire more workers, but it can still handle only 1,800 of the roughly 50,000 calls it gets daily as the coronavirus places unprecedented stress on the system.

That was a main takeaway from a Wednesday afternoon hearing where Maine lawmakers grilled Labor Commissioner Laura Fortman over the state’s struggles to process an unprecedented number of unemployment claims.

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Fortman said there was “no comparison” to the scale and speed of the current jobs crisis, noting the state has paid more than $240 million in benefits in the weeks since the virus hit. It paid $77 million in all of 2019.

She told legislators that the department’s system had held up to the increased demand, but acknowledged that staffing shortages had limited the state’s ability to answer questions by phone. Deputy Commissioner Kim Smith said that the state is working to hire 138 more employees to assist with claims, with L.L. Bean assisting with the hiring process.

Members of the Legislature’s labor committee raised concerns about workers’ inability to contact the department by phone, as well as issues with the design of the state’s website and the agency’s pace of implementing new federal programs, while a Republican lawmaker took it upon herself to get a rough quote from Google to replace the state system entirely.

Sen. Shenna Bellows, D-Manchester, a co-chair of the panel, said lawmakers were grateful for the hard work of department staff, “but it’s clear that the department needs more resources.”

The hearing, the first meeting of lawmakers since the legislature adjourned indefinitely in mid-March, followed problems with the state’s unemployment system amid the sudden coronavirus-induced economic crisis. Between March 15 and April 25, more than 108,000 Mainers filed for unemployment, amounting to about 15 percent of the state’s workforce as the virus closed nonessential businesses for all of April and limited the operations of others.

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The state’s unemployment insurance system is serving more people than ever before, with nearly 73,000 residents receiving unemployment benefits for the week ending April 25, the most recent week for which data are available. That is more than double the previous record for simultaneous benefits paid, set during the Great Recession.

Fortman said that many of the workers who did not initially receive benefits were denied because they were ineligible for typical benefits but are now receiving funds or would be soon as the state has implemented new programs expanding eligibility.

But the system and many others across the country have been plagued by technical difficulties, both with the application that sends payments as well as the phone system, forcing some applicants to wait for days or weeks before they can connect with a state employee for help.

In early April, the state announced it was adding an additional 100 workers to answer phones, though many say they have still struggled to contact the department about problems with their claims.

Maine lagged compared to other states in implementing Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, a federally funded program created in late March that expands unemployment benefits to self-employed workers and independent contractors. That program launched on Friday. The state is still working to implement another federal program which would extend unemployment benefits for individuals who have exhausted theirs.

Sen. Stacey Guerin, R-Glenburn, questioned whether the Department of Labor could switch to a different vendor, such as Google or Amazon, to mitigate some of the problems with the online platform. Google created a new unemployment system for the state of New York last month and has said it could do the same for other states.

A Google representative said in a Tuesday call with Guerin that reporters were allowed to listen to that the tech giant could create a front-end system for accepting applications in Maine within a week at a cost of roughly $1.5 million, though the back-end infrastructure for processing claims would take longer.

“Thousands of Mainers have gone seven weeks without a paycheck,” Guerin said. “To me, this is completely unacceptable.”

Fortman said that the state did not reach out to technology companies about revamping the website because the state’s online system, which is newer than those of many states having launched in 2017, never crashed.

Rep. Mike Sylvester, D-Portland, a co-chair of the panel, said constituents had found the online system to be not intuitive. Fortman reiterated that that structure of the system was sound, but acknowledged that there was room for improvement on the user experience.

The hearing was conducted adhering to social distancing guidelines, with a handful of legislators in the state house’s largest conference room, all wearing face coverings and seated six feet apart from one another. Fortman and some legislators participated remotely.

Legislators raised the issue of calling workers back to the job as certain businesses in Maine were allowed to to reopen on Friday with many making more on unemployment than they did while working. Fortman said that employees concerned about going back to work for health reasons might be eligible for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance but that those cases would likely require a fact-finding interview.

Watch: State labor commissioner speaks to unemployed Mainers

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