Emma Stanley plays Christmas tunes on Exchange Street in Portland in this 2017 file photo. Stanley, who was touring as a pianist until the coronavirus pandemic hit and is now working delivery and landscaping jobs, is one of tens of thousands of underemployed Mainers. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

Emma Stanley worked for years to sustain herself as a professional musician. The coronavirus set her back in a matter of days.

Stanley was touring as a pianist with a production of the rock opera “Jesus Christ Superstar” when the pandemic hit. She moved to Portland and began looking for work this fall after her unemployment benefits ran out.

Now, she works two part-time jobs as a delivery driver and doing landscaping. They ensure she can pay rent until she is scheduled to go back on tour in August 2021, but she said it was frustrating to be working more hours for less pay in jobs that do not use her skills.

“It’s just so discouraging, because I worked my whole life, practiced every day, and was actually succeeding in a field that’s really really hard to succeed in and then there was COVID,” Stanley said.

She is one of the tens of thousands of Maine workers who are underemployed, meaning they would like to be working full-time but can only find part-time work for now or have jobs that do not make full use of their skills. Difficulties in finding full-time work represent a major financial stress for many Maine families going into winter, as the coronavirus continues to spread rapidly.

The number of underemployed workers typically increases during times of economic downturn, as individuals who are struggling to get by or lose unemployment benefits are more likely to accept part-time, low-paying jobs that they may be overqualified for, said James Myall, a policy analyst at the liberal Maine Center for Economic Policy.

One estimate from the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics this fall suggested that the underemployment rate in Maine this fall was about 4.1 percent, which would equate to between 25,000 and 30,000 workers. That estimate is based on a four-quarter moving average, the agency says, so it likely understates the effects of the pandemic-related economic downturn.

The tens of thousands of underemployed Mainers are in addition to the 33,500 workers in the state who were unemployed in November, according to federal data, as more than 30,000 people who have dropped out of the workforce since the start of the pandemic.

Those figures begin to explain why a U.S. Census survey in the first week of December found 29 percent of Maine households were having a hard time covering basic expenses. The survey found that 23 percent of households expected to lose employment income within four weeks.

“The number of people who are just struggling to make ends meet is a much larger number than the number of people who seem to be unemployed,” Myall said. “And that really speaks to, there are folks who have lost income, even if they still have jobs.”

For workers laid off during the pandemic, accepting a part-time job can mean a lower salary as well as reduced benefits. Under the Affordable Care Act, employers are only required to offer health insurance to employees working more than 30 hours per week. Underemployed workers may qualify for subsidized health insurance under Maine’s expanded Medicaid program, but eligibility depends on several factors.

Underemployed workers can receive partial unemployment benefits if the wages are less than what they would make on unemployment. The Maine Department of Labor said about 20 percent of state unemployment claimants reported some income this fall, though that could include earnings from the week the person was laid off, for temporary or part-time work or from a new permanent job.

Single-income households that rely on part-time wages and partial unemployment benefits are likely to be under the poverty line, as the maximum weekly unemployment benefit in Maine is $445. Myall also noted that workers could lose income even if they did not officially meet the definition of underemployed — restaurant workers, for instance, might be getting fewer tips due to capacity limits even if their hours stayed the same.

John Bouchard, 61, a cook at the Hotel Terrace in Millinocket, has seen that firsthand. His hours have been reduced from up to 40 hours per week to about 20 hours. The restaurant closed in March as the virus hit Maine and reopened in October, but it is only open four days a week, from mid-afternoon to evening.

He considers himself lucky. Unlike wait staff he has seen lose serious income as people take out food more and tip less, Bouchard has a pension after managing a state career center in Portland for 30 years. He was able to collect unemployment in the summer and it kept him afloat. But he still occasionally walks the financial tightrope.

Bouchard’s car became unsafe to drive this summer, and he could not afford to be without a car in rural Maine. He said his new car payment is about $500 more, and he recently had to fix his furnace, setting him back $700. He keeps an eye out for work, but the labor market is tight. He tries to stay positive, but is not sure how the restaurant will fare in the winter months.

“From my perspective, we have to hope people can get their act together,” he said, referring to people’s adherence to social distancing methods to slow the virus’ spread. “Once this vaccine kicks in, maybe this could all be over by June or July.”

BDN reporter Caitlin Andrews contributed to this report.

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