Three weeks after the state switched to a new online system for filing unemployment claims, many residents say they aren’t receiving their benefits and can’t get anyone to deal with their complaints.
But the Maine Department of Labor says the system is performing as expected as it continues to address the problems that prevented claimants from receiving their unemployment checks.
The state labor department announced in late November it was joining the ReEmployUSA partnership, which includes Mississippi, Rhode Island and Connecticut, to streamline processing of claims through a new software program that reportedly will reduce administrative costs and fraud. Maine’s version of the program is called ReEmployMe.
The U.S. Department of Labor granted the four states $90 million to develop the system. Maine has been working on the project with Mississippi, which was the first to implement the system, since 2013.
Maine switched to the cloud-based ReEmployMe system on Dec. 6, but many residents are reporting they received only the initial week’s check, and since then haven’t received anything.
Mark Dobson, a Wiscasset resident who has been unemployed for nine months and had been using the previous system successfully, said he was able to log in to the new system Dec. 7, file a claim and get a check. But for the next three weeks he was unable to log in to file a claim, and he was unable to reach anyone at the labor department on the phone.
Dobson called the department’s 800 number as well as its local number in Augusta. Calls to the “Freedom of Access Coordinator” and the “Help Desk” went unanswered. “It kept going to voicemail or to an automated message,” he said, adding the message said they could not take calls. “There were several weeks I was trying to call three or four times a day.”
When he tried to log in Thursday to refile his claims, he was told the system wasn’t available.
Not until Thursday did he hear from a person in the department.
“They were responding to a voicemail I left two weeks ago, just checking in,” Dobson said.
The person guided him through the process of re-establishing a log-in password, but so much time had passed he had to file a new claim.
“So it’s basically been since early December since I received benefits,” he said. He believes that the labor department should have had the phones staffed.
Dobson’s story is similar to many others around the state.
“It seems they never tested out the system thoroughly, then made the change before the holidays,” he said.
Dobson, who has a background in sales and most recently worked at a heating, ventilation and air conditioning company, said it was frustrating not being able to get through, but he understands others are worse off than him. He had savings that have shrunk during his unemployment, but he doesn’t have children.
Julie Watson, of River Road in Clinton, said she also experienced problems with the system. Like Dobson, she received the first check. But then she did not receive the next two and she couldn’t get through to anyone. But after weeks of frustration, she found help. She called the office of Gov. Paul LePage and her state representative, Rep. Scott Strom, R-Pittsfield. Strom got back to her right away, then helped her get in touch with the labor department. She said the governor’s office has a special line set up for people not receiving their benefits.
“So once I hear that, I waited, then someone from the unemployment office did call me back,” she said.
They got her log-in set up again, but she said it was all “quite an episode” even though the labor department fixed things “in a timely manner.”
“But I had to go through a lot of channels,” she said. “For me it was survival mode kicked in. It’s winter. I started thinking of the little families starting to prepare for Christmas.”
Maine Department of Labor spokeswoman Laura Hudson said the most frequent problems involve input on the log-in page or a claimant not correctly indicating they are searching for work.
Claimants have been locking themselves out by repeatedly using an incorrect username or password when attempting to log on, she said.
“The biggest thing we continue to see is claimants not completing the work search,” she said.
“Because of the extremely high call volume associated with these two primary issues, we have had to add staff and two telephone lines to help manage the call level,” she said.
She also said there are technical issues.
“When data migrates, there are often little glitches that occur,” she said.
Over the last few weeks, Hudson said most of the issues that have come to the department’s attention have been resolved.
For the most part, she said the new system was performing as expected, and the department was pleased with the transition. She said they were able to isolate the problems in the first week and fix them, and they are still fixing smaller problems, which they hope to have addressed by the end of the week.
“We have made those with the most claims pending a priority,” she said.
The department has called and emailed the roughly 600 claimants who were filing without completing work search information, she said.
Since the new system went live, Hudson said the labor department has helped 9,865 claimants register as of Dec. 22. They have helped claimants file 5,761 initial claims and 16,953 weekly certifications. They have processed and paid 11,571 weekly certifications and paid out more than $3.6 million in benefits.
Maine had a 3.5 percent unemployment rate in October. Maine’s labor force is about 705,000 workers with 25,000 unemployed, according to federal statistics. According to the Maine Department of Labor, Maine’s preliminary seasonally adjusted unemployment rate for November was down to 3.3 percent.
Julie Watson said what bothered her about the whole situation was that the problems with the unemployment claim system was a statewide issue, but claimants weren’t being told that. She said at the very least, the state could have put a message on the answering machine about it.
“At first I thought it was just me,” she said. “Even though when they established their new system I went through all the hoops, managed to get in and file a claim. I knew I’d done all that right. But the next week, this is when it all started. So I knew I’d done everything right to get in their new system. Then it ruffled my feathers. They could have let us know. It would have been frustrating, but at least we would have known.”
Dozens have commented on the labor department’s Facebook page, stating problems similar to Dobson’s and Watson’s.
One Facebook user on Wednesday wrote, “after calling 8x this morning and waiting for a total of over 30 minutes, i dont know what to do. Does anyone have any advice? Really saddening that this systems is so archaic.” That user immediately posted again, saying “disconnected each time by the system after being on hold for 5-10 minutes.”
Also on Wednesday, another user wrote, “I have not been able to file in 2 weeks due to an ‘error processing your request.’ Now because of your error I have to start the process over again with the fact finding call but that wont happen for an additional 2 weeks. What gives MDOL.”
The labor department responded: “Please call our support phone line 623-7965 and someone will log and submit a case on your behalf.”
On Thursday, the labor department announced that its claims filing system would be undergoing maintenance from 5:30 to 6 p.m. and the web and automated phone filing system would be unavailable. Additional phone lines have been added to help reduce wait times and are available from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday.
However, the support line cannot provide answers to questions about unemployment benefits or claims processing.
Colin Ellis — 861-9253