This Thursday, May 28, 2020, photo shows Main Street in Rockland, Maine. Although many Mainers have received unemployment and businesses are beginning to reopen, a shortage of qualified staff in the Maine Department of Labor is the major reason for a bottleneck in the embattled system. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty / AP

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AUGUSTA, Maine — A shortage of qualified staff is the major reason for the bottleneck in Maine’s embattled unemployment system, the top state labor official told lawmakers Thursday.

Since the coronavirus forced businesses to shut their doors in mid-March, more than 145,000 people have filed claims, commissioner Laura Fortman said, and 116,000 of them — or 80 percent — have resulted in payments at some point. The state has paid out more than $800 million over that period, including both regular state benefits and federally funded programs.

The system has frustrated many Maine workers as technical issues and clogged phone lines have prevented some workers from receiving benefits, in some cases for months.

The Maine Department of Labor now has the capacity to answer about 2,000 calls per day, Fortman said. Early on, users reported not being able to get through on the phone lines after days or weeks of trying. More workers can now get in the queue, but they still must wait about 45 minutes to reach a Tier 1 employee, the lowest level of help, the commissioner said.

Fortman and other department officials held a briefing via Zoom on Thursday with the Legislature’s labor and housing committee. The commissioner angered legislators earlier this month when, at the instruction of Gov. Janet Mills, she declined to attend a committee meeting. She said Thursday that the department is planning regular weekly briefings moving forward.

Laura Fortman

The department, which had only 13 employees answering calls when the outbreak began in mid-March, is continuing hiring “as quickly as possible,” Fortman said. 

The state brought on 24 law students and recent graduates to help with fact-finding interviews over the summer and is hiring for 17 positions to fill that role this fall and is in the process of interviewing candidates for nearly 150 jobs as eligibility specialists, claims adjudicators, fraud investigators and accounting specialists.

One lingering issue, Fortman acknowledged, was that new hires, or people pulled from other parts of the department, did not have the expertise of longtime unemployment bureau employees. The department usually spends three months on training.

“We’re building the expertise as we go along,” Fortman said.

Although Fortman said phone wait times have gone down “significantly” over the past few months, she now hears of workers who talk to several employees in a week because some questions need to be elevated to core staff who were working in the unemployment bureau prior to the pandemic.

Maine has seen nearly 230,000 unemployment claims since mid-March through the regular state unemployment system and a new program for self-employed workers, according to data released by the department Thursday. Claims do not correspond one-to-one with people, however, due to issues with fraud and some people filing multiple claims. The retail and hospitality industries have been hit hardest by layoffs.

The system has also been hit by a surge in fraudulent claims linked to an organized crime ring that has wreaked havoc in many states. Last week, about 3,500 initial claims and 8,400 weekly certifications suspected to be fraudulent were canceled, according to state data.

The surge in fraud also forced the department to pause benefits for some workers who had legitimate claims while they verified identification documents. Deputy Commissioner Kim Smith said Thursday the department had received 13,000 emails with documentation and expected to have processed all of them by the end of the week.

The number of workers currently receiving benefits has dropped the past few weeks as some businesses have reopened as the state gradually resumes economic activities. While workers receiving unemployment benefits are usually required to search for work as a condition of receiving benefits, the Legislature instituted a waiver before adjourning in March that exempted workers from this requirement due to the virus outbreak.

Workers who are not connected to an employer will lose the work search waiver on July 11, while workers who are still tied to an employer will have the waiver until at least Aug. 8 or later if the governor’s emergency declaration is extended, Fortman said.

People who are called back to work but do not feel comfortable doing so because of a medical condition will require a fact-finding interview with the department, the commissioner said. The federal Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program provides some good-cause reasons for workers to continue receiving unemployment even if they have a job offer, but it depends on the circumstances and the availability of alternatives such as telework.