Maine lawmakers will try to figure out Wednesday why the state’s unemployment system is dishing out delays and wrong answers to some unemployed residents in the midst of an unprecedented jobless crisis.

The Legislature’s Labor and Housing Committee will be briefed Wednesday by Labor Commissioner Laura Fortman on problems ranging from crashing websites to problems getting through to the unemployment system by phone. Sen. Shenna Bellows, D-Manchester, co-chair of the committee, said emergency legislation passed in March would allow Fortman to hire more staff or fix computer software if it’s needed.

Bellows said the state has paid out more than $200 million in unemployment benefits to more than 70,000 Mainers since the coronavirus pandemic hit Maine and forced thousands of businesses to close in mid-March. But many Mainers say they have been denied benefits and are unable to get through to officials to find out why.

One of those Mainers is David Leonelli, an artist and craftsman from Ogunquit. Leonelli said he knew he would be eligible for expanded unemployment benefits starting last Friday, and he went onto the state’s online unemployment application system Thursday to be ready to apply Friday morning.

That’s when Leonelli was told that he was indeed eligible. The benefit: $0.

Matthew Morabito of Freeport, who left his job before the coronavirus pandemic to start his own business building high-efficiency homes, has been without work since he put the business on hold. He and his wife, who was furloughed from her job at L.L. Bean, have applied for unemployment but have not gotten answers or assistance from the state. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Leonelli wanted to find out what that meant and tried calling the unemployment system’s phone number, only to get a recording saying administrators were busy and he should call back later. That continued all day Friday, through the weekend and this week. He even tried calling at 2 a.m. and got the same response.

“There must tens of thousands of people in the same situation,” Leonelli said. “I can’t find out any information at all.”

Matthew Morabito of Freeport said he’s been trying to resolve his claim for benefits since early March. Morabito said his situation is a little more complex, since he left his job with a construction company to start his own project management firm two months ago, and then his sole client decided to delay the project.

Morabito said he had a hearing with a case officer for the Maine Department of Labor who has yet to issue a ruling on his claim. His wife, who worked in manufacturing for L.L. Bean before being furloughed two months ago, was left in limbo until Tuesday, when she finally got through to the department and repeatedly asked to speak to managers when she was told that she would have to wait for a determination. Finally, one of those managers told her that she was approved and would get aid starting Wednesday.

Bellows said there are too many tales like Leonelli’s and Morabito’s.

“We know that there are thousands of Mainers who are unable to get through on the phone,” she said.

Fortman, the labor commissioner, agreed.

“We recognize the frustration that those who have not received benefits yet are feeling,” she said in a statement. “It is the department’s goal to ensure than every Maine person gets every benefit they are entitled to.”

The department hired a Maine-based call center this spring to handle the increased volume of calls, Bellows said, but her committee needs to know how those workers have been trained and the scope of their ability to solve problems.

The department said it has seen applications for unemployment benefits soar this year as the pandemic has caused the economy to pivot from record-low unemployment rates to record highs. Since March 15, more than 100,000 claims have been filed, compared with 35,000 for all of last year.

Through the use of the call center and bringing in people from other state agencies, the department has been able to increase the number of specialists handling unemployment claims and answering questions from 13 in mid-March to more than 100 currently, said Jessica Picard, spokeswoman for the department. Last Friday, the department added staff and a new phone line specifically for calls related to expanded eligibility for unemployment under new federal rules, she said.

Picard said the department is trying hard to keep up with the volume of applications and inquiries. It handled more than 1,800 calls on Monday alone, she said. And, she said, the department’s website hasn’t crashed, although it did slow down Friday with a rush of filings for the expanded eligibility program along with the department processing previously denied claims. That process will continue over the next few days, she said, and those who were denied under the original rules should check the status of their unemployment account Friday to see if they will now be getting benefits.

The expanded eligibility – self-employed workers, fishermen and farmers are among those who are eligible for unemployment benefits under new rules adopted as part of the pandemic relief bills passed by Congress – helps thousands of Mainers, Bellows said, but “creates a whole new set of problems” for those administering the program.

She also said the state’s relatively new computer system for unemployment benefits, bought by the LePage administration with $90 million in federal funds in 2017, “has had serious problems since day one” that are exacerbated by the surge in unemployment claims this year. Maine has partnered with Mississippi to administer the computer system.

“I think this system was poorly designed and makes it harder, not easier, to accept this number of unemployment benefits (requests),” Bellows said.

She said the legislation passed two months ago will allow Fortman to hire more staff or bring in consultants if needed to address the problems. The legislation increased the amount of money that Fortman can draw from the unemployment trust fund for administration.

The fund had a balance of more than $500 million before the pandemic led to sharp increases in joblessness in Maine and elsewhere. Bellows said the federal government has picked up the tab for more than half of the increased benefits. The fund is made up of federal and state money, largely through a tax on employers.

“Maine has a healthy balance in the unemployment trust, which I believe is just over $400 million” despite the large draw over the past two months, she said.

Live audio of the 1 p.m. meeting will be streamed over the Legislature’s website at http://legislature.maine.gov/committee/#committees/LBHS.

Because the session is a briefing and not a hearing on legislation, the committee is not required to take public comment and won’t be doing so because the hearing room will be closed to all but lawmakers, Fortman and her staff.

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