Credit: George Danby

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Tessa had tried to file for unemployment for seven weeks, but she couldn’t even get into ReEmployMe, the state unemployment system. It wouldn’t accept her Social Security number. She’d called and called the Maine Department of Labor but couldn’t get through. I knew exactly what was wrong: A discriminatory programming bug in the ReEmployMe system shuts out hundreds, maybe thousands of married or divorced women, because their last names don’t match what the system has on file with their Social Security number.

That’s just one example of how the ReEmployMe computer system is a disaster. The system isn’t user-friendly; it’s user-adversarial. It’s difficult, time-consuming and counter-intuitive, and it was designed that way. Former Gov. Paul LePage’s administration spent more than $90 million on the system, and it’s been bad from the day it was installed in 2017. Whistleblowers inside the Maine Department of Labor sounded the alarm back then, but the prior administration refused to fix it.

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Fast forward to the current crisis. Two Fridays in a row, I’ve sat on the phone with self-employed constituents as they’ve filed claims for unemployment. Every time I do this, it takes more than an hour. With Terry, who was filing under the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program, I patiently explained that you had to type in “no” when the system asked if you were self-employed the first time but “yes” the second time. It made no sense.

A week later that problem was fixed, but I had to explain to Connie that the message saying she was entitled to $0 was actually good news because it meant she’d successfully filed. She and the more than 10,000 other people who received the same message would in fact be getting $772 a week.

Last week, I chaired a public briefing on the unemployment system, where Labor Commissioner Laura Fortman appeared before the Labor and Housing Committee. We learned two shocking things.

First, the Maine Department of Labor doesn’t have the capacity to go into ReEmployMe to change the messages that people are getting that are so confusing. Second, the department has half the staff it had in 2010, when it was tasked with responding to the recession.

Those are big problems. No wonder thousands of Mainers haven’t been able to get the benefits they need. Maine needs to take immediate action to resolve these issues and ensure Mainers can get their benefits.

To start, Fortman and Gov. Janet Mills need to revisit the ReEmployMe contract. We’re in a public emergency. The Maine Department of Labor needs to be able to hire tech people — perhaps some of the currently unemployed Maine millennials out there — to be able to go into the system and change the messaging to make the portal less scary and confusing. We can’t rely on the international corporation that designed the system, with programmers who don’t understand our state or our workers.

Second, Fortman should take a look at where the 100 employees who left between her prior stint as commissioner in 2009 and now have gone. If possible, let’s bring at least some of those unemployment experts temporarily out of retirement to deal with legislative requests for constituent service, fact-findings (currently scheduled out to June) and appeals (more than 1,600 at last count).

The Legislature set aside funds to respond quickly to the crisis. Let’s use some of those funds to get Maine workers their benefits. We can temporarily get folks out of retirement and pay them fairly to help resolve these appeals and expedite fact-finding interviews.

Fortman reported to the Labor and Housing Committee that there were just 13 claims representatives on March 15 when the civil emergency was declared. Those 13 claims representatives deserve medals. Some of them were the people who sounded the alarm on how bad this system is two years ago. Now, they’re working six or seven days a week, up to 12 hours a day to process more than $240 million in claims for more than 70,000 Mainers since mid-March. That’s a miracle. But it’s not sustainable.

It’s past time to fix the ReEmployMe system and restore staffing at the Department of Labor, so that Mainers get the help they need, when they need it.

Sen. Shenna Bellows, D-Manchester, serves as Senate chair of the Legislature’s Joint Standing Committee on Labor and House.