Danielle Quinones holds up a brochure for Dani's Homemade Spa Products in Van Buren, which she had to close when the pandemic hit. She has been waiting 13 weeks for unemployment benefits and recently received an eviction notice. Credit: Courtesy of Danielle Quinones

Misti Diamond has hated leaving her Norridgewock apartment this summer because she knows if she does her landlord will appear and ask if her unemployment benefit payments, more than 22 weeks late, have arrived yet. She will have to tell him no and explain she still can’t pay him rent.

“It’s embarrassing and humiliating,” said Diamond, 48. “I don’t know what to do anymore. I’m at a loss.” 

So, apparently, are the Maine Department of Labor representatives Diamond has spoken to in what she estimates are dozens of phone calls. Nothing is wrong with her claim, the department has told her. Instead, “‘You’re stuck in a loop,’ or ‘Your claim is stuck,’ or ‘The problem is a glitch,’” Diamond said. 

That explanation, that unemployment claims are somehow “stuck” in the computer system that handles them, is a familiar one to many Maine people who have reported waiting months for the benefits owed to them. 

What they might not know is that the leaders of an interstate group responsible for the computer system were frustrated with the company behind the technology last year, saying they couldn’t rely on it “to provide a quality system.” 

What’s more, those leaders have not met since the pandemic began, raising questions about the group’s involvement in troubleshooting problems during the country’s greatest economic downturn since the Great Depression.

Just as people like Diamond have tried to understand why their benefits are delayed, the Bangor Daily News also inquired about the underlying reasons. The Maine Department of Labor declined to comment on why specific claimants were experiencing longer wait times, citing confidentiality rules, but said “the most complex, unique cases take longer to process.”

At least one lawmaker believes the problems distributing unemployment benefits stem from faulty software developed by the ReEmployUSA consortium, a multi-state pact formed to share the cost of creating and maintaining state unemployment insurance systems. 

Five states — Connecticut, Oklahoma, Mississippi, Maine and Rhode Island — belong to the consortium, but only Maine and Mississippi have fully implemented the consortium’s software platform. In Maine, it’s called ReEmployME.

“There seem to be some persistent and intractable problems with the ReEmployME system, which is resulting in hundreds of Mainers, maybe more, whose cases are stalled for no apparent reason,” said Sen. Shenna Bellows, D-Manchester, who chairs the legislative committee overseeing the unemployment system. “Certainly the system is better than what was in place a decade ago. But it is deeply flawed.” 

Unemployment experts and lawmakers did not know enough about the multi-state consortium, arranged under the LePage administration, to say what impact, if any, it had or could have on Maine’s response to the pandemic. The labor department declined to make Maine’s representative to the consortium available for an interview. Mississippi’s consortium member did not respond to questions. 

Labor Commissioner Laura Fortman speaks remotely during a May 6 legislative committee meeting in Augusta. Credit: Natalie Williams | BDN

After the labor department originally declined to make Labor Commissioner Laura Fortman available for an interview, she called with a response the day after the BDN published this story online. “The consortium is a group of people that are working together, that is trying to achieve efficiencies, but each state has autonomy around the kind of improvements they want to make or need to make by the state. It’s not driven by the consortium,” she said.

States have shared information and expertise, and can help one another analyze technological challenges. The consortium, made up of representatives from state agencies that administer unemployment insurance benefits, allows members to “collectively develop, support, and maintain a system to administer the unemployment insurance benefits and tax systems,” according to a 2019 memorandum of understanding.

For instance, Mississippi shared technology that Maine used to help launch the state’s federal Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program, according to the Maine Department of Labor. About 70 percent of the larger software system is shared, with the other 30 percent state-specific, according to the department. 

At the top level, however, there appears to have been little collaboration in recent months. The executive committee of the ReEmployUSA consortium, made up of people from each member state and the consortium’s software vendor, Mumbai-based Tata Consultancy Services, has not met — whether by Zoom or phone or otherwise — since the pandemic began, according to the labor department. 

The executive committee has also not been emailing about the potential software issues. A public records request from the BDN for all the emails between Maine’s representative to the consortium, Laura Boyett, and the rest of the executive committee show the group exchanged 13 emails between March 11 and July 1. Boyett is also the director of the Bureau of Unemployment Compensation.

Almost all of the emails discussed postponing or canceling meetings. The others informed consortium partners of BDN record requests.  

In one April 21 group email, Mississippi’s Teresa Magee told members that an executive committee meeting was scheduled for later that day. There was no agenda for the meeting, but “[e]ach state could provide a status update for their state of how they are handling the influx of calls and where each state is in the cycle of COVID-19.” Magee wrote. “I have not heard from anyone since this COVID-19 started.” 

Emails show the meeting was postponed. 

Jessica Picard, a spokesperson for the department, downplayed the significance of the executive committee not meeting, saying that it “primarily reviews high-level policy issues (like cost-sharing, onboarding new members, etc.), not day-to-day operational matters.”

Maine staff are in contact with staff in other states “as needed,” Picard said, such as to review changes to core system functions. “That [the consortium executive committee] hasn’t met due to the pandemic is not reflective of the level of communication that is occurring,” she said. At the same time, she was unaware of whether Mississippi was experiencing the same problems as Maine.

“Individual states who are consortium members have been focused, heads down, on trying to implement the programs in their states,” Fortman, the commissioner, said. “As things are stabilizing right now, there will be things all of us want to work on to improve the customer experience. I think that’s when you’ll see more of those meetings taking place.”

The state “should be using every tool in our power to fix the computer system and make the unemployment system work for both workers and employers,” said Bellows, the lawmaker, though she declined to say specifically whether or not the consortium’s executive committee should be meeting.

Frustrating some claimants, the labor department has said publicly that ReEmployME is working as intended. In a June 11 letter to the Maine Legislature, Fortman acknowledged that the system’s “public interface is not one I would have chosen to implement” but said it performs “its core function of determining eligibility and making timely payments.” 

The department has issued decisions for 98 percent of people who have filed for unemployment since the beginning of the pandemic and “is working as quickly as possible to address the claims that require extensive, customized responses,” said Evelyn deFrees, director of external affairs.

Expanding eligibility through three new federal unemployment programs introduced in quick succession was a “significant factor” in delaying the processing of some claims, she said. Most recently, a fourth program was added. 

“Each program required us to develop new processes and operation teams in a very short period of time, and introduced a higher degree of complexity for certain claimants to determine their eligibility, and for what program, and at what benefit, based on their unique situation,” she said.

Prior to the pandemic, the department had 13 people to respond to such changes. “The last six months have been spent scaling up, training the team, and adapting our technology in order to respond rapidly to incoming claims,” she said.

‘About to lose everything’

Diamond worked as an in-home support specialist in a group home until late last year, she said. When she lost her job, she started receiving unemployment benefits. Her final payment was on March 22, a week after Gov. Janet Mills declared a state of emergency in response to the pandemic, screenshots of her ReEmployME account show.

Due to the pandemic, federal and state programs increased payments, expanded eligibility to self-employed workers, and lengthened the amount of time Diamond and others could qualify for unemployment. But her claim has not “rolled over” into the new payment structures, the screenshots demonstrate.

Labor department representatives told her there is nothing wrong with her claim. There is no document they need from her or qualification she hasn’t met, she said. She has been told the department cannot tell her when her benefits will come through or why they haven’t. Instead, one representative told her in late August that she “had to look at the bright side.” Most tell her to “be patient,” Diamond said.

“Twenty-two weeks?” Diamond said last week. “I think that’s plenty patient.” She has been looking for work, but, without any money to register her car or put gas in it, she said, her search has been limited.

She is not alone. Danielle Quinones, 36, launched her own line of homemade spa products last year, which she sells in a small storefront connected to her home in Van Buren. Despite what she said was a successful start to her business, she had to close Dani’s Homemade Spa Products when the pandemic hit. The small size of the store made social distancing impossible.

As of Monday, she had been waiting 13 weeks for unemployment benefits that the state extended to self-employed workers like herself.

“I can’t get any definitive answer as to what the issue is,” Quinones said. Two weeks ago she received an eviction notice. Her cell phone has been shut off, she said, so she uses the internet to make calls.

As to when she can expect her benefits to be deposited into her bank account, the Maine Department of Labor representatives she has talked to “cannot give me a time, or even an approximate time. It’s just ‘be patient,’” Quinones said. “But it’s hard to be patient when you’re about to lose everything.”

Both Diamond and Quinones qualify for expanded unemployment benefits that would not have been available to them before federal and state action to expand eligibility in the wake of the pandemic. It’s these workers who seem to be most affected by the system’s problems, said Andy O’Brien, a spokesperson for the Maine AFL-CIO, which has been helping claimants since the pandemic started.

While the volume of people reaching out to the labor union for help has declined in the last few months, some claims seem “stuck in this vortex,” O’Brien said.

“We haven’t been able to get really good answers about what’s happening with those claims and why,” O’Brien said. “They still haven’t gotten benefits, and they get conflicting information from Maine Department of Labor representatives. It seems like they don’t really know what’s going on.”

The stress on the system is unprecedented. Since the beginning of April, more than 40,000 unemployment claims have been filed in Maine each week, with a high of more than 160,000 in one week in late May. That’s more than five times the highest weekly total during the last recession.

Amid the onslaught, the rate at which states have distributed traditional unemployment benefits, which make up the majority of the benefits sent out, has slowed. In Maine, the slowdown was worse than the country as a whole.

In May 2020, Maine paid out just 30.7 percent of those benefits within 21 days of when initial claims were filed; other states across the country distributed 63 percent of benefits within that time period, according to federal data.

Picard, with the Maine Department of Labor, said Maine temporarily slowed down the processing of claims in May to deal with an “unprecedented spike” in fraud that could total in the tens of millions of dollars. That issue was unrelated to technology, she said.

For some, the delay continued even longer. Maine paid out just 72 percent of May unemployment claims within 56 days — the slowest of any state in the country, according to data from the U.S. Department of Labor. Second slowest was Mississippi with 89 percent of claims paid within that time. (The numbers do not include benefits for programs implemented under the federal CARES Act.)

It marked a shift for both Maine and Mississippi, which were above average in distributing unemployment benefits in March and April, according to an analysis by The Century Foundation, a progressive think tank. Maine rebounded in June and July.

Part of the issue was an influx of claims filed in May that were back-dated to many weeks prior, Fortman said. “May was the month that a lot of things came together. It was a combination of backdating. It was a combination of slowing things down because of fraud. It was unprecedented numbers of claims being processed. All of those issues converged,” she said.

The ReEmployUSA system has had technical challenges in the past.

The state’s 2017 rollout of the ReEmployME system was plagued by problems, resulting in thousands of Mainers unable to get benefits. Months later, an anonymous labor department staffer said in a memo obtained by The Morning Sentinel that Maine’s version of the software contained features from Mississippi that didn’t apply to Maine. The same memo also accused department leaders of destroying records to cover up the system’s problems.

And when the consortium was meeting last year, members expressed concerns about the company behind the system’s technology. In a May 2019 monthly meeting of the consortium executive committee, Mississippi representative Tim Rush said that “the Consortium has to start getting the results that they are paying for,” from Tata Consultancy Services, or TCS, according to minutes from the meeting.

“While everyone has challenges with staff and resources, the declining resources from the states means that the states can’t carry the burden of poor performance and lack of follow-thru from TCS,” Rush said, according to the meeting minutes. “[Rush] felt that allowing things to continue will result in a declining system as things are left undone and opportunities lost because we can’t rely on TCS to provide a quality system.”

The minutes show that Boyett, Maine’s representative to the consortium, agreed with Rush’s assessment. Rush did not respond to an emailed question about whether the problems with Tata had been resolved. Fortman was not aware of what the issue had been.

Another member state, Rhode Island, decided to abandon efforts to roll out its version of the system, originally planned for 2019, due to “concerns about what a rollout would look like for our state,” said Angelika Pellegrino, a spokesperson for the Rhode Island Department of Labor and Training. “We were facing delays and challenges around testing various components of the system. Committing to a timeline for go-live would have been unwise.”

When the pandemic hit, Rhode Island partnered with Amazon Web Services and Brown University to stand up the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program. The state was one of the first states to launch the program, which gave qualified applicants an additional $600 a month in unemployment benefits, on April 7, according to Pellegrino. Maine opened applications for the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program more than three weeks later, on May 1.

‘It’s just hard’

Ten years ago, most states had decades-old unemployment systems that desperately needed upgrading. Maine was no exception. The benefits system was 25 years old during the last recession, according to the Maine Department of Labor, which called it “essentially unsupportable.”

But developing a new software platform could cost $100 million, the department told the Maine Legislature. As a result, several consortiums formed to leverage federal government funds, combine resources and develop systems together. In 2012, Mississippi received federal funds to form a consortium, and Maine joined.

While states were building new systems, many also tried to make them more restrictive, so unemployment benefits would be harder to get, said George Wentworth, senior counsel for the National Employment Law Project.

“Mississippi has one of the two least generous programs in the country,” Wentworth said. “There is some risk of homogenizing going on.”

Other states have found it difficult to maintain their consortiums. Arizona, Colorado, North Dakota and Wyoming joined together to form the WyCAN consortium. But by late 2019, only Wyoming remained.

Georgia pulled out of the SCUBI consortium it formed with North and South Carolina roughly a year ago. And just before the pandemic hit, the governors of Idaho, Vermont and North Dakota agreed to dissolve their consortium, called Consortium iUS.

Coordinating software projects across multiple state governments is extremely difficult, said Terry Yoo, a professor of computer science at the University of Maine.

“Just think about trying to get three bureacracies to communicate using the same forms,” said Yoo. “It’s just hard.”

That difficulty is why Sen. Stacey Guerin, R-Glenburn, the ranking Republican on the Committee on Labor and Housing, asked the Maine Department of Labor to find private partners, such as tech giant Google, to help make fixes to the system. (The department determined that Google services “would not have improved or expedited our ability to pay benefits,” Picard said.)

“I certainly would have preferred to have the administration have our representative [to the consortium] reaching out for ideas,” Guerin said of the lack of consortium meetings. “We continue to have failures in the labor department. There are still people not getting their benefits, which seems hard to believe, but they contact me, so I know it’s true.”