LEWISTON — Lawmakers have expressed concerns about the level of staffing in the Maine Department of Labor as they hear stories from some constituents who are forced to wait up to two months before receiving their first checks for unemployment benefits.

“Given the fact that these positions are federally funded, to me it’s unacceptable that people have to wait long periods of time to get calls returned or have reviews done,” said Rep. Peggy Rotundo, D-Lewiston.

The Labor Department ran into similar trouble due to low staffing levels last December when more than 100,000 calls from Mainers seeking benefits were abandoned weekly. Though that problem has been addressed by doubling the staff that handles the calls, a bottleneck now exists with cases that cannot be immediately approved.

In about 3 percent of cases, fact-finding interviews with state adjudicators must be scheduled before people can receive their checks. Before the recession, that process took about two weeks. Recently, it’s taken as many as eight weeks with an average delay of 6½ weeks, according to a Labor Department report.

“I have no idea what people do for two months while they are waiting for an unemployment check,” said Sen. Margaret Craven, D-Lewiston, who has also heard from constituents upset about the process.

Last October, the state had 20 staffers handling the fact-finding interviews. They now have 22, which includes six new hires who began taking cases in the past two weeks. Currently, staffers are able to process about 1,100 fact-finding cases a week and the department is also moving to hire seven additional staffers, a spokesman said.

“We are well aware that we have to do a better job and that people are hurting; we’re trying to meet those needs,” said Laura Fortman, commissioner of Maine’s Department of Labor. She said the goal is to have the wait reduced to four weeks by September.

For a time, the department was down to 16 adjudicators because some had retired and others had moved into different jobs, Fortman said. The positions require months of training, making unexpected vacancies difficult to fill in a timely manner.

Many of the backlogged cases concern continued claims, but those taking the longest are for initial filers.

Charlie Croston of Auburn, who was laid off from Poland Spring Bottling Co., said it took about seven weeks from the time he filed for benefits to the date of his fact-finding interview.

“It took that long even though everyone knew we were laid off; I mean, that was no secret,” he said. “(The department’s) statement was anybody with a severance or vacation automatically has to have a fact-finding hearing, which of course, if you are doing that, I can see why they are so far behind.”

Fortman said the department has made efforts to streamline the fact-finding process, also known as adjudication, particularly in cases of widespread layoffs. She said the wait time has peaked and is on its way down.

“When there is a large plant closing, you may have 100 employees who have severance or vacation pay, and in the past when we’ve had a more manageable workload, we would schedule individual fact-finding interviews; now we are working more closely with the companies to get that information up front so we can move more quickly,” she said.

States across the country have run into similar trouble, though some have met the demands with greater success than others.

“Our average is two weeks, from when the claim gets filed to when the first check is delivered,” said Patricia Moulton Powden, Vermont’s labor commissioner. “I’m surprised to hear it’s taking up to eight weeks in Maine, but we’ve all been swamped.”

When Vermont, where the unemployment rate is 7.1 percent, hired additional staffers to handle the incoming calls last winter, they trained them to be adjudicators as well, adding to the department’s flexibility, she said.

In Alaska, where the unemployment rate matches Maine’s at 8.5 percent, new staff were trained to act as claim representatives and adjudicators, a spokesman said. Alaska tops the U.S. Department of Labor’s most recent state rankings when it comes to issuing initial unemployment checks within 21 days, the federal standard. More than 97 percent of eligible filers get their checks in that time, versus about 71 percent of Mainers, which ranks as the seventh-worst state in the country.

The acceptable level of performance is 87 percent, according to the federal department. States not meeting that level are identified and expected to put together plans for accomplishing the goal.

Expanded unemployment benefits were a priority in the federal stimulus package passed by Congress earlier this year because of their stabilizing effect on the economy.

When asked if the department performed the best it could have under the circumstances, Fortman said, “We always want to do better. So I would not say, ‘Oh yeah, this is a terrific performance.’ But yes, I think that we are dealing with an economic downturn the best way that we could.”

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