A "help wanted" sign hangs in a shop window in Portland on Tuesday April 27, 2021. Credit: BDN file photo

The Maine Department of Labor is extending a program that provides up to $1,500 grants to businesses to attract workers with only about 400 eligible workers enrolled, short of the 7,500 it was expected to be able to reach.

The “Back to Work” grant program deadline was Friday, but that is being extended two weeks to Aug. 20, the labor department said Wednesday. Launched in June, the short-term grant initiative aimed to help Maine businesses attract job seekers. It offers the grants to qualifying new hires who accepted a job between June 15 and July 25.

Extended unemployment benefits remain controversial, with some employers saying they keep workers from rejoining the workforce. Others argue they are necessary to attract help in a competitive market as the economy expands. A New York Times analysis found states that cut expanded federal benefits did not see stronger short-term job growth. Maine has left them in effect.

At the same time, Maine’s back-to-work program has struggled. The labor department initially indicated the $10 million in federal funding could reach 7,500 workers. As of Friday, 386 employers are participating, with the department finding more than 400 employees provisionally eligible. 

Employees don’t need to have completed the full eight weeks to be eligible before the employer applies. The verification to confirm length of employment will take place at a later stage.

Of the 386 employers who have participated in the program, 41 percent were smaller businesses with fewer than 20 employees. The most represented industries were healthcare and social assistance (19 percent), accommodation and food services (18 percent) and retail trade (13 percent).

“We hope this two-week application deadline extension will give businesses more time to get any lingering applications in so we can maximize the help we are able to provide,” Laura Fortman, commissioner for the labor department, said.

Maine added 11,200 jobs during the first quarter of 2021 and overall unemployment claims are steadily declining. During July 2021, unemployment claims dropped by about 2,000.