Starting this week, thousands of Mainers collecting unemployment benefits will have to start searching for a new job in order to keep receiving them each week.

Looking for a job is a typical requirement in unemployment insurance systems, but it has been suspended in Maine since March because the coronavirus pandemic made a typical work search impractical.

With businesses reopening across the state and the prevalence of COVID-19 among the lowest in the country, it is time to reinstate the requirement, Maine Labor Commissioner Laura Fortman told lawmakers in a briefing Friday.

“Our rate of infection is very low, businesses in the state have reopened – people are opening gradually and putting appropriate precautions in place,” she said.

Mainers who file a weekly benefits claim starting Aug. 16 will have to attest to their job search activity, or say they are self-employed or still connected to their employer and expect to be rehired. Those who are still connected to an employer will need to start searching for work Oct. 3, but they must be able and available for work if recalled to their job.

Work search activities have been expanded to include virtual reemployment, job fairs and training.

Under normal circumstances, the job search requirement was focused on attending in-person job interviews and job fairs, Labor Department spokeswoman Jessica Picard said.

“In the time of the pandemic, this has now been expanded to recognize skill development as a valid work search activity,” she said.

Acceptable job search activities include:

• Attending a job fair or virtual fair hosted by a Maine CareerCenter.
• Participating in CareerCenter virtual reemployment services or virtual workshops.
• Applying or interviewing for a job for which a claimant is reasonably qualified.
• Contacting employers to see if they are hiring.
• Participating in job-related education or skills development.
• Participating in networking events relating to a job or occupation.

“The world of work is changing, and many businesses are allowing telework,” Picard said. “People may need to learn new skills – or enhance the skills they have – in order to be successful in the changing job market.”

Nearly 80,000 weekly unemployment claims were filed in the first week of August, more than twice the jobless claims filed during the most intense week of the Great Recession for unemployment claims in winter 2009.

Maine employers have complained that they cannot scale up their businesses after reopening because not enough workers are applying for open positions. More than 13,000 positions are listed on Maine JobLink, the state’s employment search website.

But some workers say they cannot realistically apply for a job, either because they do not have access to child care or because they have health conditions that would put them at higher risk of getting very sick if they were infected with COVID-19. The loss of an extra $600 per week in federal unemployment benefits last week worries many for whom the extra money was helping them make ends meet in the months since the pandemic hit Maine.

Negotiations have been underway in Congress to extend the expired $600-per-week benefit, in full or in part, as part of a proposed new coronavirus relief package. Democratic leaders and White House officials met Friday for the 10th time in 12 days, but those talks broke down again as the two sides remained hundreds of billions of dollars apart on issues including aid to state and local governments. President Trump on Saturday signed executive actions he said would provide economic relief to millions of Americans by deferring taxes and providing temporary unemployment benefits.

Maine gained more than 19,000 jobs in June, when many businesses reopened and rehired employees. The official state unemployment rate in June was 6.6 percent, but in reality it could have been twice that high after correcting for inaccurate survey responses, according to state labor economists.

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