It’s been a state and federal requirement that people receiving unemployment benefits register with the Maine Job Bank to look for work, but the requirement wasn’t always enforced.

Until now.

The Maine Department of Labor has given more than 2,200 people until next week to join the Job Bank in order to continue drawing unemployment. 

Department of Labor spokeswoman Julie Rabinowitz said the change coincides with a $1.9 million unemployment computer system upgrade that prompts someone to register for the Job Bank as they file an unemployment claim rather than file a claim and count on them to register later.

“What we relied on before, in the current system, is when you finish your claim there’s a link and it takes you over to the Job Bank but it doesn’t force you to finish filing it out,” she said. “That’s been a finding against us that we haven’t been enforcing that more strictly when the U.S. (Department of Labor) audits our unemployment system.”

The change had been scheduled to take effect Thursday, Jan. 29, but the impending blizzard tentatively pushed that back one week, Rabinowitz said Tuesday.

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“Once this upgrade is live, MDOL will be fully compliant with the federal requirement,” she said.

Currently, 18,465 people statewide receive unemployment benefits. The vast majority are already connected with the Job Bank, receiving information about some of the 5,000 current openings whenever a job matches their skill set. It’s free for employers to post jobs on the bank.

Mary LaFontaine, manager of the Lewiston CareerCenter, said alerting out-of-work recipients over the past several weeks about the impending change had brought the number not looking for work on the Job Bank down from 3,633 to 2,245.

Recipients who try to file a weekly unemployment claim online after the switch will receive a message blocking the claim until they first visit the Job Bank online and register, which can be done in minutes. Recipients who try to file by phone will also be directed to register, either by visiting a CareerCenter, using a public computer or using a personal Internet connection.

“We recognize it is a little bumpy for some people who aren’t super comfortable with technology,” Rabinowitz said. “That’s why we’ve put all our CareerCenter resources into trying to work with folks to get them prepared. We’ve been working on this application, programming it, for a year and a half now.”

LaFontaine said people who are blocked and register quickly shouldn’t miss that week’s direct deposit benefit.

She planned to have extra staff and computers available for the Monday after the roll-out to help those catching up with the requirement.

“This isn’t meant to be a burden and punishment; this is an awesome benefit that is available to you free of charge,” she said. “We know that when people take advantage of it they gain work more quickly. It only makes sense that we encourage you do to that.”

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