Maine’s labor department is unsure about how to proceed with a presidential memorandum aiming to partially extend federal unemployment benefits, echoing concerns from lawmakers and other states about the legality and feasibility of the order.
It means tens of thousands of Mainers receiving unemployment benefits are unlikely to see an income boost anytime soon. The additional federally funded $600 per week in unemployment insurance passed near the beginning of the pandemic expired in late July, leaving workers with only their state benefits.
In a memo on Saturday, President Donald Trump said he was authorizing the Federal Emergency Management Agency to allocate $44 billion to supplement unemployment benefits by $400 per week through a program that requires states to cover 25 percent of that cost. If unemployment numbers stayed the same, the match would cost Maine about $8 million weekly.
Laura Fortman, commissioner of the Maine Department of Labor, said in a Monday statement that the agency was seeking further information from the federal government about the order, saying details are “vague and include no information about how the program should be implemented or would work, raising serious concerns about the ability to deliver benefits to out-of-work Mainers in a timely manner.”
Gov. Janet Mills, a Democrat, said her administration would seek information about the new program but indicated concern about the state’s ability to pay, noting that she and other governors have been asking the Trump administration for budget relief. Maine is expecting to see a budget shortfall of $1.4 billion over the next three years, according to one state estimate.
“Asking states now to take on additional expenses is unresponsive to these needs and threatens important programs and services,” Mills said in a statement.
The Mills administration’s concerns echoed issues raised by lawmakers about the constitutionality of Trump’s orders. Rep. Jared Golden, a Democrat from the 2nd District, and Sen. Angus King, an independent who caucuses with Democrats, both decried the president’s actions as executive overreach. Rep. Chellie Pingree, a Democrat from the 1st District, called it a “PR stunt.”
Sen. Susan Collins, a Republican, noted that there are “constitutional limits on what the President can do to help” while urging Democrats to resume negotiations. The Democratic-led House passed its own relief bill in May, but leaders of both parties have been unable to reach an agreement over the past few weeks. The amount of additional unemployment benefits and aid to state and local governments are among the remaining sticking points.
Nearly 80,000 Mainers were receiving unemployment benefits for the week ending Aug. 1, the most recent week for which data are available, with an average state benefit of $293 per week as of June, according to state data. The state’s unemployment system has struggled to keep up with increased demand due to the pandemic, and to implement new federal programs aimed at addressing coronavirus-related joblessness.
The president’s memorandum comes as the state is lifting the work waiver for unemployed workers who are not connected to an employer, meaning they will have to start looking for work to continue receiving benefits.
Fewer than 10,000 jobs were posted on the state’s job board as of Monday, although the state has temporarily expanded work search activities that qualify workers for unemployment benefits to include a broader range of activities, such as attending one of the state’s virtual CareerCenter workshops or participating in job-related training or skills development.