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Like many Mainers, Chris Ford saw his income dry up when the coronavirus pandemic forced the business he operates to shut down in mid-March.
Ford, who co-owns Bangor Escape Rooms, applied for unemployment in April and was initially approved based on wages from a previous landscaping side job. But his case was moved to an adjudicator who determined he should instead receive benefits under Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, a new program for self-employed workers.
Applications from workers like Ford were supposed to roll over automatically when Maine launched the new program on May 1. But four weeks later, he has not seen any benefits. When he fills out weekly certifications, the system leaves a three-word message: “issue on file.”
“I’m just in this squirrel cage, going back and forth,” Ford said, “and when I call they just tell me to be patient and wait a couple more weeks, but it’s been quite a while now.”
He is not alone. Maine workers report they are still waiting for unemployment benefits. Many have been without income since mid-March as the system has been bogged down by overwhelmed call centers, difficulties in implementing new federal programs and, most recently, fraudulent attacks that could cost the state millions of dollars and will cause further delays.
The coronavirus pandemic, and corresponding economic turmoil, has posed an unprecedented challenge to Maine’s unemployment system, with as many as one in five workers in the state losing their jobs, according to some estimates.
The majority of workers to file unemployment claims have received benefits, with the state paying out hundreds of millions in compensation since mid-March. The surge in fraudulent claims makes it difficult to say how many are still waiting, but a Facebook group for people experiencing issues with the unemployment system remains active. Legislators say they are continuing to hear from constituents about increasingly complex problems with getting benefits.
Sen. Shenna Bellows, D-Manchester, who chairs the Legislature’s labor committee, is among those legislators. She identifies two problems with the system: Technical issues and low staffing levels that make it difficult for individuals to get help when they encounter problems.
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The computer system for Maine’s unemployment applications, ReEmployMe, immediately had problems after its 2017 launch, though the Department of Labor under former Gov. Paul LePage said those were largely due to user error. As Labor Commissioner Laura Fortman told state lawmakers this month, the system has not crashed despite high demand.
But Bellows and others who have worked with Mainers trying to apply for unemployment say the system is not user-friendly and has glitches that can derail a worker’s claim despite their best efforts. She said one woman she spoke to got married two years ago and the system does not recognize her married name as being attached to her Social Security number.
“That’s an example of a serious programming problem,” Bellows said.
For workers who cannot figure out what is wrong with their claim, frustration mounts daily.
Elaine King of Belfast applied for the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program shortly after it launched. When she called the state last week, she was told her claim would roll over shortly and she could expect to see a change in her account the next day.
More than a week later, she has yet to see the change or receive benefits. The last time King called, she asked to talk with a higher-tier employee and was placed on hold. Eventually, she got a message saying the phone number she was trying to connect to was no longer available.
“I think the frustration is we all just feel like we are not getting heard,” King said, “like we’re this little group of forgotten people.”
Unresolved claims for workers like Ford and King were already a problem before a surge in fraudulent claims forced the state to pause administering benefits this week and shift some of its attention away from workers who need help.
The fraud scheme — which has been a problem in other states — is likely the work of a crime ring using stolen personal information to file claims and direct money elsewhere. The labor department said this week that it had already stopped 2,200 such attempts. Claims more than doubled for the week ending May 22 despite no economic reason to explain such a jump.
Bellows, the state senator, also works as the executive director of the Holocaust and Human Rights Center of Maine and is among the people who had a fraudulent claim filed in her name. Maine’s budget commissioner, Kirsten Figueroa, told lawmakers on Friday she was hit as well.
“It is incredibly frustrating that criminal activity is drawing resources away from efforts to get benefits out to eligible Mainers as quickly as possible,” said spokesperson Jessica Picard.
The fraud investigation led the state to delay benefits. On Friday, many saw on their online portals that benefits would next be paid on the date “09/09/9999,” the state’s placeholder to prevent funds from going through until the department could verify the claim’s legitimacy.
Amid the turmoil, some claims are still getting through. Latoya Williams of Windham received retroactive unemployment benefits for the first time on Friday. The 32-year-old mother of two had been out of work since October and was set to start a new job in March before the coronavirus hit.
Though Williams should have been eligible for extended benefits due to the pandemic, she instead went without income for six weeks before getting a job at Wendy’s earlier this month. She sees the issue as about more than just finances.
“This is not just about the money, and people needing money to pay the bills,” Williams said. “All this stress is a serious problem for mental health.”
Watch: What Maine says about people of color being affected by coronavirus