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Legislature wants more answers about delays in Maine unemployment during coronavirus, COVID-19 pandemic

While Maine Labor Commissioner Laura Fortman says the agency is working hard to deliver benefits to Mainers, the Legislature has concerns during the coronavirus

AUGUSTA, Maine — Maine Legislative leaders say they want more answers about problems and delays with Maine’s unemployment system, in the face of the COVID 19 coronavirus crisis. 

Top leaders of both parties sent a joint letter to Governor Janet Mills Friday night, asking Labor Commissioner Laura Fortman to answer questions from the Labor and  Housing Committee to explain the reasons for what appear to be continuing delays in providing benefits to thousands of  out of work Mainers.,

“(As)we are all keenly aware, too many Mainers remain unable to access (unemployment insurance) today - some weeks after first applying - and are facing dire financial straits. While the Department has made progress, one of the new federal programs, which will benefit the many Mainers who are self-employed, still remains unable to accept initial applications. The status of thousands of other claims is backlogged. Phone lines are jammed and many questions submitted electronically have been unanswered,” the letter states.

Senate President Troy Jackson, Senate GOP Leader Dana Dow, Speaker of the House Sara Gideon and House GOP Leader Kathleen Dillingham all signed the letter.

The letter follows an appearance Friday by Labor Commissioner Laura Fortman at the daily CDC briefing, where she said the Department is doing all it can to handle the workload caused by the huge influx if unemployment claims brought on by the current health and economic crisis.

FRIDAY BRIEFING WITH COMMISSIONER LAURA FORTMAN

The letter also asks for the Department to provide a Legislative liaison who can handle problems individuals take to lawmakers.  

As of this week, the Department of Labor says more than 100,000 Mainers have applied for unemployment benefits over the past six to seven weeks. Prior to that, says the DOL, it was handling a few hundred claims . 

The letter from the lawmakers acknowledges the burden on the Department, but indicates growing concerns as complaints of delays have continued.

“(We) encouraged constituents to continue calling the Department of Labor and to be patient. Now though, as we enter a fourth week being unable to elevate constituent unemployment cases for resolution, we find it unacceptable that so many are still without resolution. And as we approach May 1st and constituents face the expenses of a new month, our ability to support their unemployment claims is more important than ever.”

The Labor Commissioner said Friday letters and emails were going out this weekend to 20,000  people who are waiting for their claims to be settled. Fortman also said she will be announcing a plan next week for self-employed people to begin applying for benefits. However, she gave no timeline for when they might start receiving benefits.

At NEWS CENTER Maine, we're focusing our news coverage on the facts and not the fear around the illness. To see our full coverage, visit our coronavirus section, here: /coronavirus

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