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Depending on the time of year, Ella Mock works as an actor, a youth facilitator for college students, a costume designer or a sex education programmer. In a typical year, roughly 90 percent of Mock’s income came from contract jobs paid by schools and colleges.
But 2020 is not typical. That work dried up when the coronavirus outbreak hit Maine and there’s no sight of it coming back soon.
“I lost all my revenue streams for the foreseeable future over the course of maybe three days,” Mock said. “I didn’t realize it would happen so fast.”
Record numbers of unemployment claims have made headlines in Maine for the last month. But for workers like Mock, many have not resulted in benefits being granted. The claims also represent a fraction of those actually out of work — a share that fell in Maine over the past decade. The federal government recently expanded the system and wants that share to increase.
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Eligibility for unemployment depends on income over the previous 15 months. Maine’s workforce is unique because of a reliance on temporary and seasonal workers who might not have earned enough to qualify for benefits and the prevalence of independent contractors, who make up a greater portion of the workforce here than nationally but do not pay taxes that fund the program.
“The only way to make a living [in Maine] is to know a little bit about everything,” said Andrew Stettner, a workforce policy researcher at the Century Foundation, a progressive think tank, quoting a phrase he credits to his mother, who lives in Southwest Harbor. “Those people aren’t always covered by unemployment insurance.”
The share of jobless workers in Maine who receive unemployment benefits is known as the recipiency rate. It varies from more than 50 percent in Massachusetts to 10 percent in Florida. Like most states, Maine’s rate fell in the years following the Great Recession. While some states saw a recovery, Maine did not, dropping in recent years to its lowest level in decades.
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After falling as low as 25 percent in 2018, the rate in Maine was slightly higher just before the virus hit the state at 33 percent in mid-March, according to preliminary data, though analysts say the one-month snapshot could represent a blip or reflect workers’ tendency to apply for unemployment in greater numbers if they anticipate being out of work for a long time.
Layoffs and closures have been a central feature of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. More than 26 million people have applied for unemployment benefits nationwide since early March, including more than 100,000 in Maine. The number of workers simultaneously receiving benefits in Maine broke records for several consecutive weeks in a row, more than doubling previous highs set during the Great Recession, according to the state.
Problems with unemployment are different for separate categories of workers. Gig workers and independent contractors like Mock are not eligible for traditional unemployment, though Congress expanded it to include them in a $2.2 trillion stimulus package passed last month.
The Maine Department of Labor announced it would begin accepting claims for benefits for a new federal program providing unemployment assistance to self-employed workers on Friday. Maine lagged on implementation, as most states have begun taking applications.
Before that, Mock, 25, applied for unemployment benefits after hearing that independent contractors could apply, but did not get far. Mock’s roommate, a massage therapist, is in the same situation. Both are worried about how to meet basic expenses like food and rent.
“I’m really unsure what to do,” Mock said.
During the administration of former Republican Gov. Paul LePage, a new filing system was implemented that required applicants to supply more work search data. The rollout of the ReEmployMe system in 2017 was plagued by errors and delays. A slightly larger share of unemployed people have begun receiving benefits under Gov. Janet Mills, a Democrat.
Increasing the recipiency rate more is a mandate for Maine and every other state under the stimulus bill. States are required to submit a report within a year showing efforts they have taken to improve the rate or else risk eligibility for federal funding.
But the Mills administration has struggled to process the record-setting numbers of claims. The state — along with many others — has suffered under overwhelmed phone lines. It has paid out record numbers of benefits over the past month, but only 70 percent of workers who have applied for benefits since the outbreak have begun receiving them, Mills said recently.
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Chris Hastedt, public policy director for Maine Equal Justice, a nonprofit legal aid group, said the state needs a better system to serve a dynamic workforce including many temporary and seasonal workers as well as independent contractors often ineligible for regular benefits.
She said despite the adjustments to the unemployment system, it does not cover enough people with irregular or part-time wages, whom she said are “typical in this economy.”
“A system that only covers 1 in 4 workers who need it is unacceptable,” Hastedt said. “It isn’t working for these families or the economy that relies on [them] having money to spend.”
Watch: Janet Mills outlines her plan to reopen