Dick's Barber Shop in Orono closed for just a few days as the coronavirus pandemic forced Maine businesses to indefinitely shut their doors. Credit: Nina Mahaleris

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Mainers collecting unemployment benefits are expected to see the additional $600 provided for in the most recent federal stimulus package by next week. The Maine Department of Labor also said Tuesday it will extend the time during which those filing for unemployment can reach Department of Labor employees on the phone this week.

Those seeking benefits have struggled with long phone wait times and difficulty accessing the system as unemployment claims have steadily doubled over the last three weeks as efforts to slow the spread of the new coronavirus have shut down much of the economy. The Department of Labor reported last week that almost 31,000 people had filed new claims, and the department saw 45,000 claims combined in the prior two weeks.

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That problem has been exacerbated by the department’s unemployment specialists’ narrow window of availability if people have problems accessing the application online, the method the labor department encourages users to use.

The phone lines are traditionally only open from 8 a.m. to 12:15 p.m. on weekdays, and then those specialists answer online claims questions in the afternoon. At times, the influx of calls has caused the phone lines and the payment system to become overwhelmed and shut down.

The Department of Labor has taken steps to address the issue. Commissioner Laura Fortman has said she would hire 100 additional people to work the phones by April 10 and instituted an alphabetical call-in system. Now, the department says the phone lines will be open until 3 p.m.

The additional $600 in benefits provided for in the $2.2 trillion stimulus package is expected to be available to claimants next week, according to the release. Implementing the package’s expanded benefits requires updates to the state’s unemployment system. Claimants do not need to do anything to collect the additional money, but must continue to file a weekly claim.

The $600 addition will be retroactive to the date of the stimulus package’s enactment in late March or the date when those claiming benefits lost their employment, whichever is latest. Those payments will continue until July 25 as long as people are still eligible for unemployment benefits. Department of Labor spokesperson Jessica Picard said retroactive payments will be applied at the same time as the first $600 payment.

Other expanded benefits from the package meant to cover those who are self-employed or have exhausted their current benefits are still unavailable, according to the state agency.