For the first few months of the year, the Maine Department of Labor hummed along relatively smoothly with a little over a dozen call specialists handling new unemployment claims that rarely totaled more than 1,000 per week.

Then the coronavirus pandemic hit, and initial claims jumped from 634 in the second week of March to 21,459 in the third, then to a record 23,761 in the fourth.

Overwhelmed, the department scrambled to train staff from other areas and brought back retirees to help with the surge, but still couldn’t keep pace with the unprecedented volume. Some laid-off workers complained they were unable to file a claim because either they couldn’t reach a live person by phone or they encountered technical problems with the Department of Labor’s website.

In an effort to better manage the sudden influx, the department is boosting unemployment office staff by 100 people and changing its intake procedure. Starting next week, an alphabetical call-in system based on the first letter of an applicant’s last name will be used.

Monday is reserved for Mainers with last names from “A” through “H,” Tuesday for “I” through “Q” and Wednesday for “R” through “Z.”

Thursday and Friday will remain unassigned for those who miss or can’t call on their alphabetical day, the department said.

“While we hope to have 100 more people answering the phone lines by the end of next week, implementing this new system will ease congestion on our phone lines in the meantime,” Labor Commissioner Laura Fortman said in a statement announcing the new policy Friday. “This is an easy way for individuals to take action to improve access for everyone. We are all in this together and we appreciate your help as we navigate these unprecedented times.”

Economic disruption from the coronavirus pandemic has resulted in record numbers of unemployment claims, with more Mainers filing in the two-week period ending Saturday (about 45,200) than in all of 2019 (35,400).

The state’s hardest-hit industry has been food services and lodging, with roughly one in five workers having filed for unemployment in the last half of March, a total of 10,940 new claims, according to Department of Labor statistics. Restaurants and bars in Maine were closed to the public two weeks ago, but takeout and delivery remain available at some establishments.

Workers in the entertainment and recreation sector filed at a similar rate of about 20 percent of the industry’s total jobs, accounting for 1,670 new claims.

Other sectors with significant layoffs have included health care and social assistance (6,390 claims), retail (3,270 claims) and manufacturing (3,140 claims).

The federal CARES Act, passed last week, includes new temporary measures to help those normally ineligible for unemployment benefits. Contractors, self-employed and “gig” workers will be covered, but not until the state receives federal guidelines. The act also provides an additional $600 per week in benefits to each worker and extends the maximum term of unemployment benefits by 13 weeks, to a total of 39 weeks.

The typical weekly unemployment benefit in Maine is just over $350.

If you’re self-employed or otherwise covered only under the new legislation, or you’ve already exhausted available benefits, filing now will only result in a denial because the department has yet to receive federal guidelines on putting the new policy in place. Department spokeswoman Jessica Picard advised waiting to file until the department implements the new programs.

Once implemented, unemployment benefits will be paid retroactively, it has said.

For those with access to a computer and the internet, filing online is faster and easier, Picard said, and doing so frees up a phone line for others without such access.

“It’s a little trickier if you have a smartphone to see the screen and see all the directions,” Picard said. “If you call in, our staff on the other end are looking at the same thing. They would be asking you the same questions and typing in your answers.”

Picard also pointed to a contact button on the department’s website.

“You can put your question in there and it gets logged into the system,” she said. “All messages in there are answered by claims specialists in the order they are received. Typically, that response time may be 48 hours, but now it’s taking longer.”

The site currently says responses may take five days or longer based on current volume. Picard said all messages will be addressed, but asked that “people only put one message in if possible.”

While the department is still urging applicants to file their claims through the department’s website, those who need help over the phone can call 800-593-7660 between 8 a.m. and 12:15 p.m. on weekdays. Calls won’t be accepted after 12:15 p.m. because staff need time to process claims, Picard said.

Related Headlines


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.