Tens of thousands of Mainers are set to lose unemployment benefits by the end of the year as coronavirus cases spike to record highs, adding to the financial strain of families already struggling due to long-term unemployment during the pandemic.
It sets up a perfect storm as winter approaches. Every county in Maine set a record for active cases of the virus in the past week, dashing hopes of further reopening as a seasonal economy makes finding work difficult. Federal unemployment programs that have buoyed the state economy and families are set to run out for many all at once. The prospects of another relief bill during a lame duck session of Congress remain uncertain after months of gridlock.
“I am in panic mode,” said Laurie Jones, 57, of Greene, who was laid off from her job working with people with physical and mental disabilities back in March. “How am I going to heat my home? We can barely afford to get food and groceries and to keep the lights on.”
Jones, who hopes to return to her job but has had to look for work in the interim, was one of the about 43,000 Mainers receiving unemployment benefits as of early November, according to state data. That total is down significantly from earlier this year but still higher than at the peak of the Great Recession.
The majority of people on unemployment — about 29,600, according to the Maine Department of Labor — will lose benefits when federal programs expire on Dec. 26. Between 4,000 and 6,000 more are expected to run out of state benefits by the end of the year, the agency said. As of late October, more than 25 percent of Maine households had difficulties paying their usual household expenses, according to the most recent survey from the U.S. Census Bureau.
“We know that a lot of the folks who are most affected by the downturn are low-wage workers to begin with, so these are folks who need every dollar they’re getting,” said James Myall, a policy analyst with the liberal Maine Center for Economic Policy.
Bethany Glatz, 35, an artist and bartender from Peaks Island, was furloughed in March. She closed her art studio and found housemates to save money, but she still faces financial stress without the income she would typically have earned bartending and selling art over the summer.
After receiving a $265 unemployment check on Tuesday, Glatz was excited to shop for pet food and other basics. But she was still unsure how she was going to cover her share of a $1,200 kerosene bill.
“I want nothing more than to go back to work, but I’m not willing to risk my life or anyone else’s to serve a beer or sell a pair of earrings,” she said. “I think that’s incredibly irresponsible.”
For workers who are looking, employment remains elusive. On Tuesday, there were 10,225 jobs posted on the state’s JobLink board, about one for every four workers receiving unemployment. Some Mainers cited health concerns about returning to work. Others were frustrated at postings for temporary jobs with low pay or no benefits. Some applied to dozens of jobs to no avail.
Jones thought she was close to landing a job only to learn the company paused hiring due to rising coronavirus cases. Scott Cayouette, 54, of Winslow, recently found work part-time at a cleaning company after his part-time seasonal position as a boat inspector ended. He now makes just above minimum wage while receiving partial unemployment benefits.
Health was also a concern for him. Cayouette said his current employer is good about mask-wearing, but he interviewed for a job at a convenience store over the summer where employees did not wear face coverings. He found that troubling.
“There’s definitely a scarcity of good jobs,” Cayouette said. “There are plenty of dead end, minimum-wage jobs and a few part-time jobs here and there, but the full-time jobs are way far away from where I live.”
State officials have encouraged individuals concerned about their health amid the pandemic to seek non-public facing jobs or remote work. But of the more than 10,000 job postings currently on the JobLink site, less than a fifth include the phrases “remote” or “from home.”
Maine’s job market shows few signs of improvement. Unemployment typically spikes in January due to a seasonal economy. Coronavirus cases have also skyrocketed in recent weeks, renewing concerns about workplace safety and leading the state to halt some reopening plans.
When the coronavirus pandemic hit Maine in March, Congress passed a $2 trillion relief bill that included expanded unemployment benefits as well as small business loans, among other provisions. Lawmakers could not agree on another stimulus when a portion of that bill providing an extra $600 per week to individuals receiving unemployment expired in late July.
Two other programs, providing unemployment to self-employed workers and those who had exhausted state benefits, will end in late December. State extended benefits briefly kicked in due to high unemployment but ended last week.
Melanie Robbenhaar, 58, of Bangor, has been looking for remote work with little success. She has a master’s degree but has found few employers looking to hire someone with her level of experience. She said others have it worse, noting the financial stress for families with children in particular, comparing the problem to a slow-moving train headed toward a cliff.
“There are thousands of people that are going to be left high and dry in the dead of winter, at Christmas, with absolutely no prospects of jobs or assistance,” she said. “So Congress has to do something. I can’t imagine that they’re going to let that many people just run off a cliff.”