Maine Labor Commissioner Laura Fortman talks with reporters in January 2019. Credit: Courtesy of CBS 13

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As a seasonal worker who changes jobs frequently, Kathleen Lake is a veteran of navigating the state’s unemployment benefits system, often waiting hours to speak to someone by phone. She has always been able to file her claim eventually.

That has changed since the outbreak of the new coronavirus prompted Mainers to file 4,900 new claims over three days this month, an 800 percent increase over the corresponding week in 2019 and near a weekly high set during the 2009 recession. Those are sure to increase after Gov. Janet Mills ordered public-facing, nonessential businesses to close on Tuesday night.

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The unemployment system has long been criticized for being difficult to navigate, especially after a revamp was botched three years ago. Advocates and lawmakers say those problems, combined with insufficient staffing levels, are preventing people from getting benefits. A hotline is open for four hours a day during the week.

Lake, of Tremont, who said her employment is a patchwork of drama teaching, cruise ship tours and home show promotion work, said she has been unable to file a claim through the phone or online. She got stuck using the online system and the phone line simply disconnected her and told her to file online when she called. She said a CareerCenter employee was able to complete the process with her, but she is unsure if her claim was completed.

“I get upset and infuriated when I think of everybody who needs this right now, the new people trying to navigate this for the first time — the panic they must feel,” Lake said on Wednesday.

New unemployment numbers will be posted online on Thursday and Department of Labor Commissioner Laura Fortman said to expect a “significant increase” in claims. Systems in other states have also been similarly stressed, with ABC News reporting that some areas of New York have seen 1,000 percent increases in claims.

“There’s no question there is unprecedented stress on the system right now,” said Alison Weiss, spokesperson for Maine Equal Justice, a nonprofit that helps people navigate assistance programs.

Sen. Shenna Bellows, D-Manchester, who co-chairs the Legislature’s labor committee, said she is hearing from constituents that the coronavirus outbreak has “magnified all the flaws in the system” she said has persisted since it was changed three years ago under former Gov. Paul LePage, a Republican.

“There are a lot of Mainers filing for the first time who aren’t going to be able to pay their bills,” she said.

In response to the demand, Fortman said the department has moved 15 people from other parts of its department to staff its unemployment hotline, bumping dedicated staff to 29. Those staff are still being trained, she said. She said access could be further complicated as more file electronically from home, stressing both the system and wider internet infrastructure.

Fortman said she’s concerned problems with the system may discourage people from applying for benefits, noting they can serve as an “economic stabilizer” during tough financial times. The state is likely to run into revenue problems as unemployment will affect key revenue streams like sales and income taxes.

It all comes as Maine has made the unemployment system easier to access amid the outbreak. Mills waived a one-week waiting period to file for benefits when she declared a state of civil emergency in Maine last Sunday. An omnibus bill passed by the Legislature last week also allowed for unemployment to cover temporary business closures or provide benefits to an employee who is quarantined and does not get paid leave.

The department this week waived the work search requirement if an applicant lost their job due to the virus, although a weekly claim is still required. Claimants can use the virus as a reason for why they are not looking for work.

One of the biggest problems the department is seeing is people getting locked out of their accounts due to too many failed password attempts. Jya Marie Anderson, a self-employed house cleaner from Hancock who seasonally bartends, said that happened to her two weeks ago when she tried to file. She was unable to connect with someone on the hotline.

“It’s always been a challenge” to file, Anderson said. “Now it’s just impossible.”

Fortman said the high volume of claims may mean benefits are delayed as the system is upgraded to accommodate the new law. She expects that to be finished by the end of this week. She acknowledged long phone waits, saying the staffing window may be expanded in the future.

But the labor commissioner who returned in 2019 to the job under Mills that she held under former Gov. John Baldacci pushed back against the idea that the system itself has wider problems, saying it is an improvement over the prior system.

“I was here during the Great Recession and if we were still using that legacy system, there wouldn’t be just long wait times, there would be instability in the system itself,” she said.