Maine lawmakers concerned about “serious problems” with the state’s unemployment program at a time when thousands have lost jobs amid the coronavirus pandemic have asked Labor Commissioner Laura Fortman to attend a hearing next week to discuss ways to ease logjams in the system.

“Mainers across the state are hurting,” Senate President Troy Jackson and House Speaker Sara Gideon said in a joint statement announcing the Labor and Housing Committee meeting on Wednesday. “The number of unemployment claims are record-breaking and each claim represents a person facing a dire financial situation.”

Labor Commissioner Laura Fortman Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal

The committee plans to look at how the department is processing claims and implementing new federal unemployment benefits; staffing levels, and the department’s computer infrastructure.

Roughly 108,500 Mainers have filed for jobless benefits in the past six weeks, more than one of every seven workers in the state. Overall, nearly 73,000 Mainers filed an initial or continuing weekly benefits claim last week, the highest number on record and twice the peak number during the Great Recession in early 2009, the department said.

Just 13 workers at the department are operating the unemployment benefits program, said Sen. Shenna Bellows, D-Manchester, Senate chair of the committee.

That group “has gone above and beyond to deliver,” Bellows said, but “thousands of Mainers have experienced serious problems with the system, and we’re acutely aware that it’s going to get worse before it gets better.”

The department said Friday that its computer system was slowed as it began processing applications for expanded unemployment benefits through the Federal CARES Act, called Pandemic Unemployment Assistance.

In a news release, the department said it had processed more than 3,000 claims by noon and would process thousands more over the weekend. But officials admitted that increased traffic on the department’s website caused delays and urged filers to be patient and to use a desktop or laptop computer instead of a mobile device.

In a news conference Thursday, Fortman said that based on an analysis from Maine’s tax agency, roughly 70,000 workers could be eligible for expanded benefits through Pandemic Unemployment Assistance.

The department said claims can be filed at any time, assistance under the expanded guidelines will be available until December and payments are retroactive to the date that a filer lost his or her job, starting March 15.

New rules adopted in response to the pandemic allow more workers to apply for unemployment, including farmers and fishermen, self-employed workers, independent contractors, gig economy workers, workers with short employment histories, nonprofit workers not covered by state unemployment programs, and others who were ineligible for regular unemployment benefits.

Pandemic assistance benefits start at $172 per week, which is 50 percent of the average weekly state unemployment benefit for the self-employed and those who do not meet monetary eligibility for regular unemployment. The department will ask for documentation of earnings to finalize applications later in May. People will receive retroactive payments if they are entitled to more than the minimum weekly benefit based on their income, Fortman said.

If a claim doesn’t require further review, filers should get their benefits within seven days of filing, department officials said.

The maximum benefit available under the program is $445 per week. In addition, anyone who qualifies for state benefits under either program also receives an additional $600 weekly benefit through the Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation (FPUC) program that is available for claims filed through the week ending July 25.

“The process of ensuring Mainers have the benefits that they need, and are entitled to, most certainly has been difficult in the midst of COVID-19,” said Rep. Mike Sylvester, D-Portland, House chairman of the Labor and Housing Committee. “Our committee looks forward to working with the Department of Labor to ensure they have everything they need moving forward to keep unemployed workers from drowning in debt.”

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