Labor Commissioner Laura Fortman speaks remotely during a May 6 legislative committee meeting in Augusta. Credit: Natalie Williams | BDN

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AUGUSTA, Maine — Maine has paid more than $650 million in unemployment benefits to roughly a fifth of the state’s workforce since the start of the coronavirus outbreak, according to the state’s top labor official.

The pandemic caused an unprecedented shock to Maine’s labor market, leading to record-setting numbers of unemployment claims. The state’s system for processing claims struggled to keep up with the volume, with many workers unable to get help by phone due to high call volumes.

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Despite those issues, about $658 million has been paid to unemployed Mainers since mid-March, Commissioner Laura Fortman said in a Monday interview. That includes state benefits and federally funded benefits through the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program for self-employed workers and the additional $600 on top of regular benefits for all unemployed workers.

Currently, about 3,000 people have claims in a “pending” state, Fortman said, including applicants for both state and federal benefits. She said the department, which has scaled up the number of employees taking calls about unemployment, has been able to take more calls recently compared to earlier in the pandemic.

“At least in the last week, we have been hearing that people are able to get through,” Fortman said. “Some of the issues that folks are having are more complicated than to be quickly handled via phone call, but people are getting through to us.”

State benefits are paid out of Maine’s unemployment trust fund, which is paid for by taxes on employers. As of the end of March, the most recent point when data are available, the fund sat just shy of $480 million. The fund is not exhausted because federal money is covering the expanded benefits.

About 120,000 individuals have received unemployment through regular state benefits since mid-March, Fortman said. That figure represents about 20 percent of so-called “covered” workers, or individuals who were working in jobs that would make them eligible for state benefits, at the start of the pandemic. Among that group, workers in the restaurant and accommodations industry were hit hardest by layoffs, according to state data.

The correlation between unemployment claims and the total number of unemployed individuals in Maine has been complicated by a surge in fraudulent activity, which likely accounted at least in part for the sharp rise in new claims last week.

Though some fraudulent claims have been connected to the regular state unemployment program, Fortman said the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program, which Maine launched on May 1, presented a new opportunity for criminals looking to game the state’s system.

While the labor department has quarterly wage records on file for individuals seeking regular state unemployment benefits, it does not have similar records for self-employed workers seeking benefits through the new program or a count of workers who have received benefits.

“The eligibility, to a certain extent, is based on self-attestation, and I think criminals may have seen that as an opportunity to submit fraudulent claims,” Fortman said.

The fraud investigation led the state to temporarily pause administering benefits last week while it verified the veracity of claims. Fortman said the department was continuing to work with law enforcement and had reassigned some employees who had been temporarily working in the benefits division to instead assist with investigations.

Individuals or employers whose information is used as part of a fraudulent claim can fill out a form on the department’s site to report that their information has been stolen. The state said last week that it had already caught 2,200 fraudulent claims, but Fortman said it was too early in the investigation to predict the total number of fraudulent claims or what the cost might be.

Watch: State labor commissioner speaks to unemployed Mainers

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