LEWISTON — Local job seekers aired frustrations over the economy and the bureaucracy involved with finding new work and maintaining unemployment benefits to U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe, who visited the Lewiston CareerCenter on Monday.
The Maine Republican, home on a break from Congress, was joined by Laura Fortman, commissioner of Maine’s Department of Labor, for a tour of the facility. The CareerCenter helps unemployed workers negotiate the maze of training and education programs available, as well as match up employers with qualified job candidates.
But the stories told to Snowe were not those of success, but exasperation.
Heather Brown of Lewiston said she received unemployment benefits for about three weeks before she accepted a minimum-wage job. But rather than improving her finances, she said having a job hurt them.
“I’m actually making less money than I was through unemployment by $20 a week, and they cut my food stamps from $200 a month to $16 a month,” she said. “I’m making $230 (a week) and at $16 a month to pay for food, I’ve got a … ton of Ramen in my house, but that’s about it.”
Two men complained about the problems they were have finding work because their licenses had been, or were soon expected to be, revoked due to lack of payment on child support.
“In 13 weeks when my unemployment runs out, they are going to take my license because I can’t pay my child support,” said Michael Burbank of Auburn. He said he wanted to apply for a job as a food service worker in Afghanistan with an annual salary of $67,000, but wouldn’t be able to because he won’t be able to get a passport.
“I could be over there working. I could clean up my bills. I could save my truck. I could save my house,” he said. “But no one will let me, no one will give me the opportunity to get ahead. In 12 weeks I’m going to be on welfare living in a cardboard box.”
Many at the CareerCenter offered Snowe suggestions for streamlining the job training and education benefit application process, which is riddled with red tape and a patchwork of programs with varying requirements, state and local officials said.
“You are bearing the brunt at a time when you should not be,” Snowe told the job seekers. “So I am sorry that you are. We should insulate you from that because you are dealing with trying to find skills so that you can get another job.”
Fortman, the state labor commissioner, said Maine’s February unemployment rate was 8.3 percent, a tenth of a percent increase over the previous month. That means about 59,000 Mainers are looking for work, she said.
“There are currently about 5,200 jobs listed, which is up,” she said. “Now that people are starting to see that there is work out there, there are more people out there looking for work. So over the next couple of months we anticipate, which is really counter-intuitive, more people will re-engage, and the unemployment (rate) may be going up in the next couple of months.”
Snowe said talking to people at career centers helps her to better understand the actual problems Mainers are facing, something that can get lost among her colleagues in Washington, D.C.
Congress adjourned for break without voting on an extension for some unemployment benefits, which will result in a lapse in checks to about 1 in 50 unemployed workers next month, according to the National Employment Law Project.
“They are living from benefit to benefit, dollar to dollar. That’s the bottom line,” she said. “And everybody should understand that in Congress, enough so that it compels everybody to sit there and work it through. But if there’s a disagreement, everybody gets locked down, and it doesn’t get resolved, much to the people’s detriment. So, no, there is no excuse or rationale for why that extension doesn’t just occur seamlessly, so that people don’t have to deal with the uncertainty and further anxiety than they already are having to endure and experience with the state of joblessness in their lives.”