Opinion

Demanding action on unemployment benefits

All across the state, Mainers are worried about how they are going to continue to make ends meet. This is true whether they are one of the thousands of Mainers out-of-work through no fault of their own or a small business owner who had to shut their doors for the sake of public health. The COVID-19 pandemic has turned our world upside down, ground our economy to a halt and threatened the financial security of hardworking families.

Maine people are struggling. The fact that many Mainers still haven’t been able to access their unemployment benefits is unacceptable.

Before the Legislature adjourned in March, lawmakers expanded unemployment in Maine to cover a number of situations specific to COVID-19. We also waived the waiting period for benefits and the job search requirement for individuals who had an agreement with their employer to return to work when the pandemic was over. State lawmakers then sent a letter to the federal government to take additional steps to cover Maine people. Shortly after, Congress funded additional unemployment benefits to cover workers who normally wouldn’t be eligible, including sole proprietors and self-employed Mainers. The hope was that these efforts would make sure Mainers were taken care of during the public health crisis.

Instead, I’ve heard from people all across the state who have experienced issues filing both over the phone and online. Folks are not just frustrated anymore, they’re angry. I don’t blame them. People deserve the benefits they’re owed so they can pay bills, put food on the table and stay in their homes. 

Don’t get me wrong. I fully recognize the challenges the Maine Department of Labor is up against, and appreciate all of their work to implement the changes from the Legislature and the federal government and deal with the unprecedented number of claims. But enough is enough. The first couple of weeks of issues was understandable. The third and fourth weeks were incredibly frustrating. More than six weeks into this pandemic, it’s unacceptable. Mainers can’t afford to wait any longer.

The department has taken some steps to increase its capacity to field calls and process claims by hiring more than 100 workers and unveiling a new phone system. But it’s clear that more needs to be done.

By the time this is published, Mainers who became eligible for unemployment through the federal CARES Act, including many sole proprietors, independent contractors, and self-employed individuals, will finally be able to apply for benefits. I worry that this will only further overwhelm the system. 

Maine people and lawmakers deserve answers. It’s why legislative leaders have called for the Department of Labor Commissioner to appear before the Labor and Housing Committee in the coming weeks. Our hope is that the governor can explain why Maine is struggling to issue the new unemployment benefits approved by the federal government. We’re committed to getting the department the resources it needs — whether that’s more staff, technology upgrades or funding — so Maine people can finally get their benefits. 

The reality is that this is personal for me. As a fifth-generation logger, I’ve been on unemployment before, and I know what it’s like to wonder how you are going to make ends meet and feed your family. This public health crisis is stressful enough without having to worry about whether the benefits you’re owed will come in on time to make your rent or mortgage payment. As we work to resolve these issues and hold folks accountable, rest assured that the benefits you’re owed are retroactive. 

In the meantime, please continue to reach out. You can reach me by email at Troy.Jackson@legislature.maine.gov, call me at home at 207-436-0763 or call my office at 207-287-1500.

Maine can and will rebound from this extraordinary situation, but it certainly won’t be easy. It will depend on people in power making sure working families, small businesses and rural communities don’t get left behind. As long as I’m in Augusta, I’ll make damn sure the state stands up for Aroostook County.

Sen. Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, is Maine Senate president. He can be reached at either 207-287-1500 (office) or 207-436-0763 (cell), or via email at Troy.Jackson@legislature.maine.gov.

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