Opinion

Making sure eligible Mainers can receive unemployment benefits

No one wants to be unemployed. Yet many of us have found ourselves in situations where we are laid-off for no fault of our own, especially those of us in seasonal industries like construction, trucking and logging. Fortunately, in Maine and across the country, we can access unemployment benefits to help us make it through these brief periods of unemployment.

Employers pay into the unemployment insurance system so when the unexpected occurs, laid-off workers have what they need to get by. However, the LePage administration’s recent overhaul of the unemployment system has made it more difficult—if not downright impossible—for folks to file their unemployment claims and make ends meet. It’s not right and it’s causing significant hardship for families and individuals all across the state.

When the Department of Labor launched the new system late last year, the system was immediately met with a number of serious problems from technological errors to long wait times for support. It was an absolute train wreck from the beginning, leaving many eligible people without their benefits during the holidays. And now we are hearing from whistleblowers within the Department that the system was rolled out despite known glitches, a severe lack of staff training and poor planning.

Three months later we are still seeing the same problems. Mainers are getting locked out of the online system and struggle to get someone from the Department on the phone for support. People are being wrongfully denied their benefits, and complaints are going unanswered. It is incredibly frustrating. It should not be this difficult for folks to access the unemployment benefits to which they are entitled. The Department is intentionally confusing and misleading people in an attempt to cover up their failure to take the appropriate steps to implement the system.

The new unemployment system also moves everything online, which makes it difficult for people with little computer experience or access to file for unemployment.

In their blind pursuit of fraud, the administration created a system that doesn’t work for the people who need it most. I’m all for eliminating fraud but the administration is systematically making it more difficult for the rightful people to use the unemployment system. Instead of searching for jobs, people are spending hours on the phone—on hold—trying to get help.

In a state like Maine, we need an unemployment system that works. This is especially critical as we head into the height of temporary unemployment season in rural Maine. As soon as the roads begin to thaw, truckers and loggers will find themselves temporarily out of work and in a precarious financial situation if they cannot access their benefits. It will disproportionately affect those working in industries that are prominent in rural areas like ours, and that’s not fair.

In the past, the Department of Labor granted work search waivers to folks who were temporarily unemployed with the understanding that they will return to work with a specified employer in less than six weeks. Many states have this policy to streamline the process and make it easier for people in industries like logging, farming and trucking to get temporary benefits.

When I invited Gov. LePage to the logging roundtable last fall, he voiced support for this process after hearing first-hand from loggers. However, we have yet to see any progress and it is causing real hardship.

As someone who has been unemployed, I know how hard it can be between trying to put food on the table, find work and go through the bureaucracy of filing for your benefits. The fact that the administration is actively making it difficult for the Mainers who need it is absolutely infuriating.

My colleagues and I in the Senate have been working with unemployed constituents and the Department to get folks the benefits they deserve on a case-by-case basis. If you or anyone you know is having difficulty with the new unemployment system, please give my office a call at 287-1515 or call me personally at 436-0763.

It is incumbent on the Department to fix the system and make it easier for people to access the benefits they rightfully deserve. I promise to continue working until we resolve this issue. I know it is frustrating but know that we are here working and fighting for you.

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