AUGUSTA — Josh Johnstone, of Freeport, is out-of-work and looking for unemployment aid in his third week without a paycheck.

Josh Johnstone

Johnstone, a rigger at Bath Iron Works, said in an interview that his claim has been held up by a “monetary investigation.” Johnstone said he has considered going back to work, but fears that he could bring the coronavirus home to his wife and child, both of whom have respiratory issues.

That’s kept him home for now.

“This is going to start scaring people into going work,” Johnstone said. “I might have to isolate myself from my family so I can put food on the table.”

A massive influx of unemployment claims has state Department of Labor staff working through the weekend to get benefits to those out of work, but wait times and uncertainty with applications are prompting people like Johnston to consider getting back on the job.

The department is staring down a massive influx of claims, jumping from 634 during the week ending on March 14 to 21,459 during the week ending March 21. The 21,000 Mainers filing for unemployment benefits last week marked the highest weekly total on record.

Department Commissioner Laura Fortman said anecdotally that she expected to see a high volume of claims until the coronavirus outbreak is under control.

The entrance of the Department of Labor in Augusta is seen on March 26. More than 3 million people filed U.S. unemployment claims, the most ever in a week due to the coronavirus pandemic. Kennebec Journal photo by Andy Molloy

“We need to tie it to the length of pandemic,” she said. “This is really a medical emergency that we’re seeing, which is different that an economic disruption.”

On Monday, the state’s Department of Disease control was reporting 275 cases of the coronavirus and three deaths statewide.

Despite his claim being held up, Johnstone believed all of the employees working for the labor department are doing the best they can, but the system may be flooded.

“Probably after the 20th time I called, it rang for five minutes,” he said of his experience. “Finally somebody answered and she answered the phone and she was just sort of a fill-in. She couldn’t log my name in a system. She could give me basic information. I know she was doing her best.”

Johnstone said Monday that his claim is now showing that he has insufficient wages to qualify for benefits, though he protests that he has been working full-time during the 15-month period that the labor department would be taking into account while calculating benefits.

Johnstone said Bath Iron Works, and its parent company General Dynamics, could take a strong position and help with some employees’ uncertainty. He said the company should “send their employees home, shut the gates and pay the people.”

The Times Record reported on March 26 that BIW initially offered employees unpaid leave from March 16 to 27. Leadership extended its unpaid leave offer to employees through April 10. Jessica Chubbuck-Goodwin, president of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers Local S7, one of the shipyard’s largest unions, told the Times Record that attendance rates at the shipyard were around 40% as of Thursday, March 26.

Matt Schlobohm, executive director of Maine AFL-CIO, which encompasses about 160 different unions in the state including Johnstone’s union at BIW, said his organization is working closely with the labor department to create an online seminar that shows the most efficient ways to file.

Schlobohm said the state has done a good job with its unemployment provisions and managing its funds, but the system for claims has simply been inundated.

“Maine has done a very good job managing its trust fund,” he said. “We’re in sound financial shape. I think the DOL is doing everything it possibly can.”

Fortman said an initial claim takes about 20 minutes and necessary weekly certifications take a couple of minutes. She said all applicants should have a few things on hand before beginning to apply online or on the phone, including their social security number, banking information if the applicant would like to have their benefits directly deposited into their account and the names of their employers from the last 15 months.

Along with having that information handy, Fortman said there are a number of resources available on the department’s website, including a short video and a guide, to help people through the application process. She said online applications are preferred for those with internet access, so phone lines can be as open as possible for those without a computer.

If a claim comes back with a mistake, Fortman said, representatives from the labor department will contact the applicant. In the case of a monetary investigation, like in Johnstone’s case, Fortman said the good news was that the claim was on file and someone would reach out to the applicant.

Fortman said some labor department staff also needs to be trained on more changes to unemployment programs on the federal and state level, which takes time away from processing claims. Despite that training, claims are still being processed in the same amount of time as before the outbreak — 10 to 14 days, Fortman said, if there are no issues with the claim.

“I think staff is undertaking a heroic effort to get things out as quickly as possible,” she said, adding that $4 million in benefits was paid out within the first two days of last week.

Fortman said some people have been locked out of their accounts after failing to enter their password in three attempts. She suggested to use the forgot password tool before the third attempt, which would require some assistance from the department to retrieve their login information.

Fortman said some new federal regulations for unemployment passed Sunday, but the state is still asking for federal guidance on how to implement them. She said applicants should wait for a confirmation post on the labor department’s website before applying, as their application may be denied when it should not have been. She said no benefits would be lost if people wait to apply.

Schlobohm said the new provisions “dramatically” expand who qualifies for unemployment insurance, including those who are self-employed and not usually covered, and it extends the length of time that someone can collect benefits.

For more information on applying unemployment benefits, visit maine.gov/unemployment.

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