Laura Fortman, Gov. Janet Mills' nominee to head the Department of Labor, talks with CBS 13 about the state's efforts to help workers laid off during the closure of four Taco Bell fast food restaurants in the state. Credit: Courtesy of CBS 13

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AUGUSTA, Maine — The Maine Department of Labor’s phone system was functioning again on Thursday after it was down earlier in the day and at several other times this week as the coronavirus prompts record-setting unemployment filings.

The entire entire phone system has been experiencing intermittent problems this week, according to its information technology office. The problem is exacerbated at the labor department, which operates an unemployment benefits hotline for only four hours a day during the week.

Some residents have reported being unable to contact the department by phone even when the lines are working. It has come as Maine and the U.S. see record claims for unemployment, with new figures released Thursday showing almost 24,000 people filed for unemployment last week in the state alone as businesses shut down amid the coronavirus outbreak.

[Our COVID-19 tracker contains the most recent information on Maine cases by county]

The claims filed broke the previous week’s record of 21,500. It has been estimated that 61,000 jobs could be lost in the state by June.

The phone lines were reported to be down on Monday, Wednesday and part of Thursday. It is unknown whether the lines were down Tuesday, but department spokesperson Jessica Picard said Wednesday that employees were working Tuesday night to “stabilize the phone lines.”

Picard said the department was put on a different phone system on Wednesday that has helped to stabilize it. She said her agency is working with the Department of Administrative and Financial Services to hire more people to answer phones and “ensure stability of the line.”

The labor department had been advising people who could not get through on the phone to leave an online message, though it says it takes about a week to respond to them.

Employees have tried to work around the issue. An email from Virginia Carroll, the labor department’s director of policy and evaluation, to workforce agencies on Wednesday said the department could see some people calling in and was trying to reach them via cellphone.

Maine Labor Commissioner Laura Fortman, who previously led the department during the tenure of Gov. John Baldacci, has said she is concerned that problems with the system may be discouraging people from filing for benefits. The people filing for benefits have been concentrated in the hardest-hit sectors of the economy — food services and lodging, health care and social assistance, retail and manufacturing.

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