Customers read a sign on the door of BAM bookstore in Bangor on March 23, explaining that the store would be closing later that day.

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AUGUSTA, Maine — The biggest hurdle facing Mainers among the tens of thousands trying to file for unemployment benefits seems to be an inability to contact the state’s labor department for assistance, an issue that is likely to be compounded as eligibility expands.

Between Monday and Friday, nearly three dozen people responded to a Bangor Daily News reader inquiry saying they experienced difficulty filing claims. For many, their issues range from being locked out of accounts, difficulty in navigating the online system to unanswered questions or contradictions about the validity of their claims.

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The Maine Department of Labor offers limited recourse for many of these challenges. With state offices shut to in-person visits, people are only able to seek help online or by phone. Getting it may become even harder as more people seek guidance during an outbreak that prompted a record 21,459 claims between March 15 and 21. Many more were likely trying to file.

On Monday, the state’s landline infrastructure was overwhelmed by call volume, causing the department’s unemployment hotline to be inaccessible at times during the day. The system will also need further adjustments after Congress passed legislation expanding who was eligible for benefits, leading to further delays before self-employed people can file claims here.

People are being hung up at all stages of the application process. For some, their problems with the system begin at the first page of the online application. The department has said one of the biggest problems people are running into is getting locked out of their former accounts due to failed password entries. Some reported technical difficulties. 

After clicking a wrong input option, Lorri Centineo of Brunswick, said she was unable to continue for a while without wiping out her claim. It is now pending due to a “monetary investigation,” an issue she said persists “52 calls and seven days later.” Department spokesperson Jessica Picard said that means the state needs more information on a person’s finances.

Others say the website is not compatible with smartphones, which the state acknowledges is not the best way to file a claim. Colleen Writt of Falmouth said the application required “a lot of clicking and scrolling.” She eventually turned to a computer to complete her claim.

“I think a lot of people would just give up” if they primarily use smartphones, Writt said. According to the Pew Research Center, one in five Americans in 2019 were “smartphone-only” internet users, meaning they do not have home internet service.

Kate Lowry of Falmouth said her application seems to have been halted after she claimed her college-aged son as a dependent. She completed the online process but later received a mailed saying she needed to claim a dependent. Her online portal does not give a reason why.

“There’s no information being asked of me, no follow-up,” she said. “Not that I can reach anybody if I call — they always say they’re too busy.”

Problems are compounded by an inability for many to contact the department. Many reported having no success in attempts to contact the department by phone or through the online claim system. They say email claims take days for responses and the phone system disconnects people seeking benefits without placing them on hold.

That’s a problem, since department spokesperson Jessica Picard said complex issues can only be resolved by state unemployment specialists, who are only available by phone Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 12:15 p.m. They answer online questions and process claims. The state has reassigned 15 people to help answer claim questions, bringing the total to 29.

Kathleen Lake of Tremont said she found help through a CareerCenter employee who was able to help her complete her application after a two-hour wait. When her claim was still not resolved, she said she tried to call the hotline, but “accidentally” pressed the “employer option” — which connected her directly to a live person.

Lake said the person was able to pick out a number of “small flaws” with her application. But as of Monday, different parts of the online system say she is eligible and not eligible for benefits.

Picard said the “employer” option on the hotline routes individuals to the department’s employer tax division. Those staff do not have access to the benefit claims system, though Picard said they are responding to some questions “holding up the processing of benefit claims.”

The department is urging people to be patient as the system is stressed and federal changes come online. Some people are drawing benefits. Picard said about $6 million in claims were paid last week to those who filed between March 15 and 21 — or nearly 8 percent of what the system paid in all of 2019. But many others are waiting and federal changes mean some who will be eligible may wait longer.

Picard said the system underwent changes last week to reflect legislation passed by Maine lawmakers this month making unemployment more available to people affected by the virus. It will need to be updated again to reflect new eligibility categories passed by Congress last week. 

Those provisions include an additional $600 weekly on top of state benefits and coverage for self-employed and unemployed workers. The department is advising those people to wait to file a claim until the system is changed to reflect that law. Claims filed before then will be denied

Labor Commissioner Laura Fortman said Monday during a teleconference with AARP the state will implement the program as soon as federal guidelines are made available. For simple issues like needing to reset a password, Picard advised contacting the state’s CareerCenters, which offer a live chat that can handle basic questions. 

If you’re unable to reach someone, an online contact form is available. Picard noted, however, that you may need to wait up to a week for a response.