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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A record number of unemployment claims caused by coronavirus shutdowns has forced the Maine Department of Labor to hire 100 more workers and start an alphabetical call-in system to relieve a backlog that has crashed its phone system intermittently.

On Monday, Maine people with last names beginning with letters A-H should call 1-800-593-7660 to file for unemployment; those with last names beginning with I-Q on Tuesday; and R-Z on Wednesday. Thursday and Friday are open for those who miss their day. Those with online access should use it as the department works to get the 100 new employees answering phones by April 10, Commissioner Laura Fortman said Friday.

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Coronavirus unemployment has crashed the entire labor department phone system intermittently this week. The problem is exacerbated by the department’s unemployment benefits hotline operating 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.

The problems with the lines, which were reported down on Monday, Wednesday and part of Thursday, arise as Maine and the U.S. see record claims for unemployment. New figures released Thursday show almost 24,000 people filed for unemployment last week in Maine as businesses cease amid the outbreak. The claims filed broke the previous week’s record of 21,500. Estimates predict that 61,000 jobs could be lost in the state by June.

Fortman called the new alphabetized call-in system “an easy way for individuals to take action to improve access for everyone.”

“While we hope to have 100 more people answering the phone lines by the end of next week, implementing this new system will ease congestion on our phone lines in the meantime,” Fortman said in a statement released Friday. “We are all in this together and we appreciate your help as we navigate these unprecedented times.”

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.