Months after the state unveiled a new system that Mainers must use to file claims for unemployment benefits, frustrated state legislators still are reporting problems their constituents are having with it.

Rep. Ryan Fecteau, D-Biddeford, said complaints about the new system are continuing to come into him every week, and that the House Democratic Office also has continued to receive complaints. At the end of January, Fecteau said, House Democrats had received more than 30 complaints about the new system; and others, such as Sen. Shenna Bellows, D-Manchester, are receiving similar complaints.

Fecteau, who, with Sen. Amy Volk, R-Scarborough, leads the Legislature’s Joint Standing Committee on Labor, Commerce, Research and Economic Development, said constituents who haven’t received unemployment benefits to date are having a hard time paying their bills.

“Is the DOL offering assistance on those bills?” Fecteau said. “Those are important questions that have been left unanswered.”

The new system, called ReEmployMe, is a cloud-based filing system developed for a four-state consortium spearheaded by the Mississippi Department of Unemployment Security.

Dale Smith, the deputy executive director of the Mississippi department, said it’s not surprising that Maine faced problems rolling out the new system. When Mississippi officials began working on their system in 2013, Smith said, they experienced roughly six months of struggles similar to Maine’s. They dealt with people unable to get access to their claims, and people calling multiple times a day clogged the phone lines. They also heard from elected officials, much as the Maine labor department has been experiencing.

“It’s something that can’t be done without challenges,” Smith said in a Jan. 31 interview.

Smith said the system is customized by state and is like having to develop a new system each time. A deployment of customized technology is not possible without challenge, he said. He said Maine’s system alone contains over 1 million lines of code.

Smith said switching to a new filing system was necessary in order to modernize the process.

“We knew it would be a benefit for them to reuse the technology that had already been developed,” he said, “and all the states could benefit from reducing the administrative hours that were at stake.”

As of Jan. 30, Smith said, 17,500 Maine customers had used the system to file a new claim or continue an existing claim. In that same period, Mississippi had 20,500 customers who successfully filed claims. Since 2016, when Mississippi made the system compatible for multiple tenants to use, over 111,000 customers have used the system successfully, he said.

Smith echoed Maine Department of Labor reports that there is an aspect of user error involved, including cases of claimants not filling out the work search section of the system online. Without filling that out online, a claim is incomplete.

“That probably is the largest volume of people early on that did not get paid,” Smith said.

“A lot of times people who do not get benefits are upset and they’re angry and they think something hasn’t worked for them,” Smith said. “I think they’re getting to the point where they can deliver the answer to the customer, whether it’s the answer they want to hear or not.”

Fecteau said legislators have questions that the department has not answered.

“The bottom line is it’s extremely important that folks continue to reach out if they’re having issues,” he said.

Smith said the problems in Mississippi went on longer than in Maine, and Maine already is beginning to turn the corner in terms of its system problems.

On its Facebook page, the Maine Department of Labor posted a message from Smith dated Feb. 2, two days after his interview with the Morning Sentinel. The message posts that while there have been problems with the rollout, such a massive undertaking is not possible without challenges.

Smith’s statements were not met warmly online. One Facebook user simply wrote “Slow and what a joke,” while another criticized the department for not answering phone calls when people are trying to access their benefits.

“Trying to shift the blame to people that tried to call is shameful,” one user wrote.

However, the state’s labor department wrote a response, refuting such claims, saying any assertions that they shut down phone lines were completely false.

“People were never locked out of communications,” the department wrote. “Our telephone lines for unemployment services are historically heavy and wait times and calls answered have been in line with what happens every year.”

To that, another Facebook user responded, calling out the new system as “the worst.”

“You guys are not doing your job for the people of Maine and I am going to start reporting you to the State!” the user wrote. “This whole thing is a joke and you guys should be ashamed of the way you treat people who really need their benefits.”

Fecteau said state representatives will continue to try to connect with those struggling without benefits. One thing he said they have heard is an issue with how frequently people can file for benefits, with many people under the impression they can file online only once a week, on Sundays. He said he’d like to see a waiver for those who don’t have access to a computer or are computer illiterate.

“We shouldn’t be setting up barriers to filing,” Fecteau said.

Colin Ellis — 861-9253

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Twitter: @colinoellis