Most of the roughly 19,000 Mainers with pending unemployment claims received expedited decisions late this week instead of waiting for fact-finding interviews with the state Department of Labor that, in some cases, had been scheduled well into the summer.

About 5,000 claims were approved and another 7,000 denied, said Labor Commissioner Laura Fortman, who appeared with Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, at the state’s daily COVID-19 briefing Friday afternoon.

Labor Commissioner Laura Fortman Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal

“If we took the normal course of business, we would be scheduling out into July,” Fortman said, “and that is just too long for anyone to wait.”

Fortman’s action came as legislative leaders weighed in on the situation Friday, sending a letter to Gov. Janet Mills requesting two things, that Fortman appear before the Legislature’s Labor and Housing Committee next week for an update on the unemployment system, and that the Department of Labor designate a legislative liaison and case managers to meet the needs of the thousands of people who are seeking additional help.

“As elected officials, we all have the highest responsibility of supporting the constituents we represent,” Senate President Troy Jackson, House Speaker Sara Gideon, Senate Minority Leader Dana Dow and House Minority Leader Kathleen Dillingham said in the letter. “Those people are coming to us in an unprecedented time of need and our successful operation of the unemployment system is necessary to help them meet monthly expenses and put food on the table.”

The economic upheaval in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic led to more than 101,000 claims pouring into the department over the past five weeks, matching the total received in the previous five years. The surge overwhelmed a staff that had been reduced to 14 claims experts during Maine’s historic run of low unemployment.

Although many claims are straightforward and require little to no staff intervention, others – often filed by people new to the procedure – require a follow-up interview with the claimant, which created a backlog. Fortman decided earlier this week to streamline the process by moving forward on claims likely to be approved and denying those that didn’t meet initial eligibility requirements.

As for the remaining 7,000 claims, those may still require interviews or other review with the goal of resolving them quickly, Fortman said. The new streamlined process will continue through May 30.

Fortman believes that many of those who receive denials will be eligible when the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program takes effect in Maine, particularly independent contractors, self-employed workers and those who didn’t meet the earnings threshold for the past five calendar quarters. Although the program is part of the federal CARES Act passed in late March, Maine is not yet among the roughly 10 states currently paying such claims.

“We received the initial release of rules on April 5,” Fortman said. “The final rules we receive next week should provide the final pieces of information we need.”

While the letter from the legislative leaders thanked Mills for her steady leadership during the pandemic, and noted the significant challenges Fortman and the Department of Labor face, it raises the failure to get the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program on line in Maine.

“As we are all keenly aware, too many Mainers remain unable to access UI today – some weeks after first applying – and are facing dire financial straits,” the letters states. “While the department has made progress, one of the new federal programs, which will benefit the many Mainers who are self-employed, still remains unable to accept initial applications.”

Some states are taking a phased approach to the federal program, awarding benefits only to certain segments of eligible people, Fortman said. Her goal is to “make sure that when we roll this benefit out, that it is taking into consideration all of the people who are eligible for it, and we are accurately providing benefits up front, so that we do not have to rework the system as we move along.”

Fortman said her department needed clarification on how people not traditionally covered by unemployment insurance would fit within the existing framework. The challenge for the department is to determine eligibility requirements, namely that someone has lost their job through no fault of their own and that they are able, available and willing to work.

A letter from U.S. Labor Inspector General Scott Dahl urged states to make sure the money goes out quickly, but reminded state commissioners that “you will be held to rigorous auditing and program integrity standards by the U.S. Department of Labor,” Fortman said. “So we are doing everything we can to meet those dual goals and get benefits out as quickly and as accurately as possible.”

The department now has 100 people answering calls with expanded hours and an alphabetical call-in schedule. Staff have been recruited from elsewhere in the department and from other departments to help with claims.

Since the pandemic began, two-thirds of Mainers who applied for unemployment benefits are now receiving them, Fortman said, including an extra $600 per week in federal assistance from the CARES Act. More than $100 million has been paid out to 69,015 out-of-work Mainers, according to a labor department release.

Fortman said her department will announce a firm timetable early next week for accepting applications under the expanded eligibility program.

The letter from the legislators concluded by offering to use the financial and staffing resources at the Legislature’s disposal to help the Department of Labor address the issues it faces.

“These are difficult times and we are glad to partner with the administration to navigate these challenges,” the lawmakers said.

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