Maine will begin accepting unemployment claims for newly eligible workers on Friday, more than a month after the federal government extended benefits to self-employed workers, contractors and others who ordinarily do not qualify.

People should be able to start filing claims online at 8 a.m. Friday. If the claim does not require additional review, applicants should receive benefits within a week of filing, the department said on Tuesday. Benefits will be paid retroactively to when the claimant lost income, as far back as March 15.

Twenty states have expanded eligibility under Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, a program included in the federal CARES Act.

More than 101,000 Mainers have filed for unemployment benefits in the past five weeks, about one in seven workers in the state.

Initial claims have fallen in the past two weeks, but another surge is expected when newly eligible workers are allowed to file.

For weeks, people who are typically ineligible for benefits have been greeted with a notice on the unemployment website telling them not to file because their claim will be denied.

“It just frustrates me, I know a lot of people are really struggling,” said James Salomon, a freelance architecture photographer in Portland.

Salomon shoots photos for magazines, books, architects, interior designers and manufacturers. Most of his work involves going into people’s homes.

With social distancing measures and economic uncertainty, Salomon saw most of his work dry up shortly after the coronavirus pandemic hit. He’s financially secure for the moment, but angry about the delayed rollout of benefits for self-employed workers. There were more than 67,000 self-employed workers in Maine in 2018, according to federal Bureau of Labor Statistics.

“Usually people in my situation have nothing to fall back on except for their own resources,” Salomon said.

But the state Department of Labor and some experts have said states struggled to determine how to document income and eligibility for workers not typically covered by unemployment insurance.

Maine and other states also had to create systems from scratch at the same time they dealt with a historic level of unemployment, said Michele Evermore, senior policy analyst at the National Employment Law Project.

“It’s like walking and chewing gum and writing a (doctoral) dissertation at the same time,” she said.

Some people who applied for benefits last month and still have not received help question whether Maine’s system can handle a new influx of claims.

Susan Axelrod was laid off from her job as a magazine editor last month. She’s tried to get in touch with the unemployment office for five weeks to figure out why her weekly claim won’t process and keeps saying “issue on file.”

“I have no idea what that means, and despite literally hundreds of attempts, I can’t get through on the phone,” Axelrod said.

She can’t believe the state plans to add thousands more people to the jobless rolls without adding more staff or dealing with the existing backlog.

“I certainly don’t want to deny my self-employed friends their benefits, but I think we’re creating an impossible situation,” Axelrod said.

Pandemic Unemployment Assistance covers a number of workers who otherwise do not have access to jobless benefits including:

Self-employed workers
Farmers and fishermen
Independent contractors
Nonprofit employees not already covered by regular state unemployment benefits
Gig economy workers
Workers who do not have enough work history and earnings to be eligible for traditional unemployment benefits
Others who have been deemed ineligible for regular unemployment benefits

People filing for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance will be asked to self-attest to 2018 or 2019 earnings when they submit a claim.

“The federal Office of the Inspector General has advised that this program will be subject to rigorous audits, and so the department asks that claimants provide accurate information to the best of their ability,” the labor department said.

Claimants will not have to send paper or electronic documents showing earnings with their application, it added. It will let people know in May when those documents need to be uploaded to finalize claims.

If workers already have filed a claim that was denied because they did not earn enough, they do not have to reapply and it will be processed automatically, the department said.

Self-employed workers who tried to file will have to log in to their account and update their claims with earnings information. If people have not filed a claim, they should go online and start the process, the department said.

Workers need to file weekly claims to receive benefits. The lowest weekly payment Mainers receive is $172, and the top payment is $445. The average payment is around $350.

But all workers, including those newly eligible, also will receive a weekly $600 Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation payment authorized by the CARES Act.

The state Labor Department expects another wave of unemployment claims after the system goes live. Initial claims hit a record high of about 31,000 in the last week of March but have come down since. Roughly 11,500 Mainers filed a new claim two weeks ago, the lowest weekly total since the labor crisis began but still 20 times the normal amount of weekly claims in early March.

Labor Commissioner Laura Fortman said last week that the department had expedited thousands of claims caught in a fact-finding interview bottleneck.

“These uncertain times have been particularly difficult for our small businesses and self-employed Mainers,” Fortman said in a statement. “I know that waiting for unemployment benefits has been a challenge for many, but help is on the way.”

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