Laura Fortman, head of the Department of Labor. Credit: Courtesy of CBS 13

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AUGUSTA, Maine — Some Mainers who have seen their previous unemployment claims denied will automatically get benefits through a new federal effort launching on Friday, though workers will initially receive the minimum benefit in an effort to expedite the program.

Self-employed workers whose state unemployment claims were denied due to insufficient income will automatically get benefits through the federally funded Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program, Maine Department of Labor Commissioner Laura Fortman said Thursday.

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Many of the 7,000 workers whose claims were denied through an expedited process last week would likely fall into that category of workers automatically enrolled, Fortman said. Self-employed workers who have not yet applied for unemployment will need to fill out an initial claim, and all workers still have to file weekly certifications.

The program was created through a $2.2 trillion federal stimulus package passed in late March, though it took Maine a month to set up the system to administer it. Benefits through the program are retroactive to when individuals were forced to stop working due to the coronavirus outbreak. The minimum benefit is set at $172, half of the state’s average regular unemployment benefit. Workers also receive an additional $600 for weeks starting April 4 through another federal program.

The department will start paying the minimum benefit to eligible individuals without reviewing their earnings history in order to get money into the hands of workers faster, Fortman said. Workers will then be asked to provide documentation of their previous income in the coming weeks, and their benefits will be adjusted retroactively if they qualify for additional funds, she said.

The department is asking applicants to file in staggered times on Friday morning, based alphabetically on last names. The department does not know how many of the state’s roughly 70,000 self-employed workers have been affected by the virus and will be applying for the program, Fortman said.

The Maine Department of Labor has at times struggled with high call volume as record numbers of people have filed for unemployment over the past six weeks. Fortman noted that the office had hired an additional 100 claims specialists to answer the phones, but she encouraged workers to make phone calls only as a “last resort.”

Watch: State labor commissioner speaks to unemployed Mainers

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