Maine Labor Commissioner Laura Fortman defended her agency against criticism of its response to the historic surge in unemployment spawned by the coronavirus epidemic, telling a panel of lawmakers on Wednesday that the department is hiring more than a hundred additional workers to handle the increase in claims.

Labor Commissioner Laura Fortman Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal

Appearing before the Legislature’s Labor and Housing Committee via video conference, Fortman said that she understood that some Mainers have been frustrated by their inability to reach unemployment officials by phone. She said the department is currently working with L.L. Bean to hire an additional 138 workers on top of the 100 it hired soon after the crisis first hit. The Freeport-based retailer is going through resumes and conducting interviews for the positions, Fortman said during the four-and-a-half-hour committee hearing.

The commissioner appeared to choke up as she praised her workers, who have processed unemployment claims that are paying out $60 million to $70 million a week as much of the state’s economy has shut down to try to rein in the coronavirus pandemic that has killed 62 people in Maine over 70,000 people in the United States.

“Perseverance and exceptionalism are the attributes I have seen in my staff,” she told the committee, saying daily calls have climbed from 300 before the crisis to more than 1,800 currently.

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.

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.

Fortman said the 2008 financial crisis was the only recent event that shifted the financial fortunes of the state’s workers so dramatically. But there were signs that recession was coming, she said, while the pandemic hit the country with little advance warning.

As the initial wave of unemployment claims came in, they were handled by a staff of 13, Fortman said. That staff has since been beefed up to about 100, including workers from a call center, but Mainers said they usually encounter busy signals when they call looking for help with their claims. Technicians worked around the clock for a couple of days to fix the phone system when it crashed, Fortman said.

“I believe we have taken appropriate actions,” she said.

Members of the Legislature’s Labor and Housing Committee practice social distancing and wear face coverings Wednesday as they hold a hearing via video link with members of the Mills administration about the status of Maine’s overloaded unemployment system.  Image from video

Fortman encountered mostly sympathetic lawmakers, but Sen. Stacey Guerin, R-Penobscot, said Fortman should have been more aggressive in meeting the influx of calls and applications. Guerin said she spent several hours on the phone Tuesday with representatives of Google, the tech giant, who told her that they could upgrade the state’s online unemployment application system for about $1 million.

But Fortman said the state’s computer system, purchased three years ago, hasn’t been a problem. Although it has been slowed by the crush of users on occasion, she said, it hasn’t crashed – unlike the phone system, which was taken down last month by the influx of calls.

“This (computer) system has not crashed and is getting the benefits out,” she said.

Guerin said Google has helped other states with their unemployment system computers, but some of those states used systems so old that they ran on an outmoded programming language that hasn’t been standard for decades and not many programmers still working today have ever used.

Asked what she needed, Fortman told the committee it was only the additional staff. Most are positions that have been vacant for years but are still on the books, meaning she can fill them quickly without the need for legislative action.

Fortman said the state has implemented a federal expansion of unemployment eligibility ahead of most states and made it easy for Mainers to apply. That expansion opens up unemployment benefits to those usually deemed ineligible, such as the self-employed, farmers and fishermen.

She said those workers who were denied benefits under the state unemployment rules were automatically reentered into the federally funded program, part of the government’s response to the economic turmoil caused by the pandemic. Many should begin receiving benefits this week, Fortman said.

The federal government has been paying the majority of unemployment benefits in Maine, she said, but the crisis has started to eat into the healthy balance of the state’s unemployment trust fund.

Buoyed by years of low unemployment, the fund balance stood at more than $500 million before the pandemic. As of Wednesday, she said, it was $378 million, but unemployment tax payments by businesses should increase the balance as workers get back on the job and the federal government is expected to pick up most of the tab for unemployment as lawmakers try to ward off a recession.

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