Maine has yet to implement a massive expansion of unemployment benefits more than two weeks after the program was signed into law, and the state Department of Labor’s top administrator doesn’t know when the change will happen.

Across the country, state labor departments are scrambling to increase weekly benefits and develop a protocol for newly eligible workers at the same time they handle a historically high level of unemployment claims. The federal CARES Act, signed into law on March 27, makes two major changes to state unemployment insurance programs: It increases the amount of all weekly benefits payments by $600 and adds previously ineligible contractors and self-employed workers to the list of eligible claimants.

More than 76,000 Mainers have filed unemployment claims in the past three weeks, about one in every 10 workers. Because self-employed and contract workers still are not able to file a claim for benefits, the number of people out of work is likely much higher. But for now, if those workers attempt to file a claim, they will be denied.

Maine is testing systems to deliver the additional $600 per week to unemployment beneficiaries, Labor Commissioner Laura Fortman said. Currently, unemployment benefits in Maine range from $177 to $485 a week, with the average benefit amounting to about $350 a week.

The department is in the final stages of testing and expects to add in the $600 payments early next week for anyone currently receiving unemployment benefits.

“That’s the program that clearest guidance was given on and given soonest – that is the one that will be rolled out first,” Fortman said.


The U.S. Department of Labor gave instructions to states early last week to provide the added compensation and expand eligibility, but Maine’s unemployment office will not say when it expects to implement the eligibility expansion.

“Nothing has gone smoothly so far, so I hesitate to put a date out there,” Fortman said.

More complicated than implementing the increased payments is figuring out how to expand benefits to self-employed, contract and other workers who would ordinarily be ineligible.

Employers with salaried or hourly workers pay taxes into the unemployment insurance system, so the department has records to calculate benefits for those workers if they are laid off.

But people who are ineligible for standard unemployment assistance don’t pay into the system. Therefore, states have to figure out how to verify the income of newly eligible claimants and the reason the pandemic has forced them out of work.

The department could use tax records, but many people have not filed their 2019 income taxes yet this year, Fortman said. The deadline for filing state and federal income tax has been delayed until July 15.


There is no timeline for when the state’s eligibility expansion will be ready, but Maine’s plan is to integrate filing for newly eligible workers into its existing system.

“Our goal is to make the process as simple as possible and maintain the integrity of the program and get benefits out to people who are eligible,” Fortman said.

The federal guidelines broadly define categories of self-employed and contract workers, and states have only been given a week to review them, said Michele Evermore, senior policy analyst with the National Employment Law Project.

“The guidance isn’t all-inclusive, it is pretty unclear,” she said.

Because the program is federally funded, states have to follow explicit federal guidance or risk having to recover money from ineligible workers they incorrectly approved for benefits, Evermore said.

Maine is ahead of the game in at least one way. Many state unemployment systems run on an antiquated programming language called COBOL that makes it even more difficult to make new changes.

Maine began updating its system three years ago. Although the rollout was plagued with errors, the state is now better prepared to create new programs, Evermore said.

“They can’t give an exact timeline, but Maine will be able to pay benefits more quickly than other states,” she said.

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